I tend to notice weird things when I walk into a museum. I’m lucky that I get to travel the world visiting them for a living, but sometimes get caught up in my work a bit much – my phone is filled with too many pictures of things like WiFi signage and not enough breath-taking art! In New Zealand we are also so spoiled with incredible cultural treasures, it’s easy to forget how lucky we are.
When I was a little girl, my mother used to take me to the Auckland War Memorial Museum every week to watch the haka performed in the Māori Court. I would take off my shoes and go into the meeting house Hotunui to run my hands over the carvings. In so many museums you can’t touch anything, so one of my favourite things about the Auckland museum is the textures you can feel. Auckland Museum is unique in that it’s not just a museum – it’s a memorial too, opened in 1929 to commemorate New Zealand’s loss of over 18,000 people in WWI. Walk in the front doors on the northern side, look up and you’ll see a stunning stained glass lead light ceiling. The design incorporates the coat of arms of all the British territories during the war and the bronze wreath that accompanies it combines kawakawa with rosemary to represent mourning and remembrance. If you climb the stairs to the top, you can feel the cold Sicilian marble slabs and the bronze leaf etching of the honour roll under your fingertips – quite the contrast to the warm wood of Hotonui below. Before you go, grab a coffee at their stylish new 1929 Espresso Bar.
Over in the heart of the city between Kitchener St and Lorne St is another great sensory experience – a little known beautiful city space recently renamed Te Ha o Hine Place, meaning ‘pay heed to the dignity of women’. It was built to celebrate the centenary of women’s suffrage. Notably, this year marked the 125-year anniversary of the right to vote for women in New Zealand. I like to close my eyes and listen to the hum of the city fall away, until all you hear is the sound of the water falling over the beautiful scroll tile designs.
At the top of the steps sits Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, where by contrast, it’s pretty quiet and probably best to keep your hands in your pockets, which is fine with me, because what I love the most about this place is it has the most distinctive, beautiful smell. It’s the first thing that grabs me when I walk in the door and I always take a moment to take a big breath of it in. My favourite gallery here is the more traditional architecture of the New Zealand Art wing with its ornate interior balconies and, if on display, their Goldie collection is incredible – some of it framed in gorgeous heavy rough sawn timber as a nod to the artist’s father, a timber merchant.
The galleries of Auckland often organise fundraising day trips to Gibbs Farm, a sculpture park boasting the biggest collection of large scale outdoor artworks in the country, alongside a few exotic animals. Gibbs Farm is not just somewhere you can rock up to – you’ll need an appointment to visit, so riding along on a gallery field trip is the perfect excuse. The contrasts of the sweeping views of the Kaipara Harbour with the scale of these works is glorious – look out for Neil Dawson’s ‘Horizons’, one the Farm’s original commissions. It looks like it was blown in – easy to imagine in this exposed landscape where the wind sweeps your hair in your face. I love the way this sculpture captures the view inside it, yet never fails to fool me into another dimension.
While up north, you’ll also want to check out the Matakana Sculptureum, where you can combine two great weekend pastimes: sculpture and wine. Grab a glass of rose and wander the gardens of Anthony and Sandra Grant to admire their whimsical and very Instagrammable collection, like a set of giant hot pink snails. Plan to spend the day there, perhaps with a stop at their Rothko restaurant for a yummy lunch.
Venturing a little further afield, a pilgrimage to feel the grass under your feet at the historic Waitangi Treaty Grounds should be a must do for every Kiwi, especially with their stunning new Museum, Te Kōngahu. This is arguably the most important historic site in the country and home to the world’s largest ceremonial war canoe, the waka Ngātokimatawhaorua, officially part of the Royal Navy. It’s also the perfect place to send tourists if you have friends visiting, to experience the real story of New Zealand, witness cultural performances and even enjoy a hāngi. The Museum itself opened a couple of years ago and is state of the art. I love the cool of its dark spaces with gorgeous lighting and the stunning blue floor, which makes me feel like I’m walking on water. They’ve got a gorgeous tā moko exhibition on at the moment, which is worth checking out.
A little closer to home, but no less an adventure, is Rotoroa Island Museum. Few Aucklanders have made it all the way down to the far eastern end of Waiheke, where a fascinating series of remote islands are home to an oddball collection of kiwis, donkeys and vines. Fullers does a day trip by ferry from downtown, so you can explore the nature trails and check out their tiny museum (entry by koha). The museum remembers the history of the island as the Salvation Army’s addiction rehabilitation centre. If you’re keen to hike, head up the Southern Loop Track to see Chris Booth’s sculpture ‘Kaitiaki’ and enjoy the stunning views from Coromandel to Great Barrier. Better yet, combine it with a volunteering day to clean up the beach and plant a tree.
Speaking of trees, another must see on my list is Redwoods Treewalk in Rotorua (cheating a little, given this is a visitor attraction and not a museum). This 600-metre long ecotourism walk on suspended bridges between trees is even better at dusk so you can see David Trubridge’s design ‘Redwoods Nightlights’ under the dark canopy of this magnificent forest, whose trees are over a century old.
As we’re making our way down the North Island, the next stop on my list would have to be the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery and Len Lye Centre in New Plymouth. Len Lye was an incredibly innovative artist famous for his kinetic sculptures and pioneering films and this is the first institution in New Zealand dedicated to a single artist. Architect Andrew Patterson’s building, inspired by Lye, is worth the visit in itself – fabulously clad in curved concrete and stainless steel, its disorientating mirror finish reflecting the cityscape.
No list of New Zealand’s top museums would be complete without Te Papa Tongarewa, a trio of art, history and science. Their collaboration with Weta Workshop for ‘Gallipoli: The Scale of our War’, is hands down the most incredible exhibition I’ve ever seen. Te Papa’s exhibitions are world famous in the museum industry and this has to be their best yet – seeing those oversized tears rolling down a nurse’s cheek, or the giant hairs standing up on the back of a soldier’s neck never fails to brim a few tears as I emerge to place a poppy at the end. If you need another excuse to visit, they’ve just opened their new gallery Toi Art and the Museum is hosting ‘Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality’ this summer – a once in a lifetime chance to see the 2,300 ancient treasures up close. Or, for the techies among us, Te Papa has made their collection available online via API so you can invent your own creative experience from their metadata and ‘visit’ virtually, wherever you are.
While we all wait to see if Sir Peter Jackson’s new movie museum will come to Wellington, across the Strait we can still visit his personal collection of World War 1 aircraft at the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre in Marlborough. For the more adventurous, you can even blow out the cobwebs with a joy ride in their open cockpit Boeing Stearman or try your stomach at aerobatics in a Russian Fighter! If you’re an airshow fan, time your visit for Easter so you don’t miss out on the Classic Fighters show. The Museum of Transport and Technology (MOTAT) in Auckland also has the coolest hanger jam packed with our aviation history – they’ll be opening a brand new exhibition called ‘Above and Beyond’ in collaboration with NASA and the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum this summer.
Over in Nelson, the World of Wearable Art museum showcases the best from their world famous annual awards (if you’re not into fashion, they’ve got a drool worthy classic car collection too). There’s nothing quite like seeing these extravagant textile designs on the stage complete with music and movement at the annual WOW event, held each September in Wellington, but at the museum you can get up close to see the intricate detail of these amazing works.
If I’m to pick one last spot, it would have to be ToitūOtago Settlers Museum, a great place to wander over to after enjoying a few too many treats at the Dunedin farmers’ market. This museum is such a serene and peaceful place, one of my favourites in the world. It’s full of surprises, like a wall of ANZAC poppies knitted by the community of Mosgiel, or the extensive exhibition on the changing world of computers – the last thing you’d expect to see in a settler’s museum, but the ultimate combination of my two favourite things: museums and technology!
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