Reblogged: New Zealand Museums

This blog post was originally published as part of Tom’s travel blog in 2019

From Greymouth to Nelson to Marlborough and its copious wineries, to Wellington and its coffee and so up to Tongariro Nat’l Park.

As some of you know, B and I originally hoped to come to NZ for a year and work in museums or pursue higher education. We discovered that visas were a bit more expensive and decided to turn it into something approximating our usual trips, but for as long a time as we could possibly manage.

Nonetheless, our object was partly for adventure, and partly for purposes of reconnaissance for future opportunities…and for learning. As a start, I contacted four living history museums in New Zealand and asked if I could volunteer with them for a week or so. Three of them took me up on it, and in the end I was able to commit to two. To follow up, I contacted Interpretation Network of New Zealand and we discussed other ways to connect with the museum community – settling on three (now two) presentations for their members involving case studies of the interpretation projects I’ve been a part of.

My first opportunity came on the west coast of the South Island near a town called Greymouth. The heritage park of Shantytown is a little like a Fort Edmonton Park in miniature – perhaps only an eighth of the size. Nonetheless it had a steam train (Actually two!), a 4d movie, and several historic streetscapes evoking the goldrush past of the region. I had a marvelous time working with the curators and managers, spending most of my day with them wandering through the park and talking about what to stop, what to start, and what to continue. I fear they may have thought that I would come bringing golden tales of a wondrous world where museums are valued and funded, but perhaps knowing they were not alone in their various woes was some comfort.

The steam train at Shantytown.

My second opportunity in this sphere was at Wellington, where I met my longtime correspondant Emma and set up camp at the Wellington Museum. We were eventually joined by 16 INNZ members, most of whom were natural history interpreters or coordinators. Illustrated by some choice images, I discussed the mammoth York Boat project we just completed, the Great War Commemoration project of several years ago, the ongoing Queer History project, , and – a mix of scale and impact, and projects I’d done at Fort Edmonton Park and separately.

The talk went well, but more happily, so did the drinks afterwards as we kvetched and wept and laughed and shared successes and failures at a seaside tavern in what has become my new favourite New Zealand city.

Museums are a big part of my life and a big part of my tourism experience, but rather than paining your eyes with long written descriptions of various historic sites and facilities, I’d rather share some of the highlights of New Zealand museums so far. Not all museums are perfect, but there are always things to commend and I would always rather that than criticize. I apologize if this is too much inside baseball!

Photo Opportunities

While sometimes a bit cheesy, good photo opps ensure that families capture memories of their time at the site and then rehearse that experience with themselves or on their own later.

A children’s sized “fire truck” in front of the historic fire hall at Shantytown Heritage Park.
A small dinghy from the nautical history section of Wellington Museum.

Heritage Everywhere

Art should not be confined to galleries, and likewise the collective memory should not be confined to museums and archives. That being said, there should be a mechanism for when a community decides that such commemoration (which is rarely anything but celebratory) is no longer appropriate. Heritage is not entirely synonymous with history and erasing a name from our landscape does not erase it from the history books.

A mural of the historic waterfront in Bluff.
Instead of the normal image in the walk light, Wellington installed several variations. This one is of a famous drag queen who ran for Mayor in the 1970s.
A man doing the haka exhorts you to not walk.

Genuine Interactivity

Museum visitors must be given the opportunity to be active participants and not just passive recipients. This is especially important in museums that lack or have few docents or interpreters.

A simple typewriter set up for visitors at Founders’ Park in Nelson. Yes, there are museum visitors who have never used a typewriter!
A whiteboard interactive in an exhibit about Pacific Islanders’ traditional tattoos in Te Papa museum, Wellington.

Great Design.

Museums and the museum community, not to mention museum education, can be insular and self-perpetuating. Collaboration with artists and other sectors can help bring incredible change and dynamic experiences to the visitors, not the least with amazing design. Admittedly, New Zealand has an ace in it’s pocket with the film industry.

A life-sized diorama of the Red Baron’s crash site at the aviation museum in Marlborough, designed and executed by Weta Workshop and Peter Jackson! (No specific mention of ‘Wop’ May, though).
One of the larger-than-life dioramas in Te Papa’s “Gallipoli: the Scale of our War” exhibit, once again by Weta Workshop. (I come up to her knee).
A beautifully designed bilingual (English/Mandarin) sign at the Chinatown historic site in Arrowtown. Note that images take up at least 50% of the space.


The number one reason I wanted to visit New Zealand (just barely ahead of Lord of the Rings and an incredible landscape) was their approach to Indigenous content and collaboration in the museums sector. As you may or may not know, the Maori people of Aotearoa/New Zealand are a strong cultural force and a national partner in New Zealand. That is not to say that there is not colonial or racist attitudes, or that there is not a long way to go, but Te Reo Maori words pepper Kiwi English just as they dot the landscape. The Treaty of Waitangi between the Crown and the Maori is recognized as the country’s constitution. Maori may choose to vote in Indigenous-only ridings to elect their own representatives to Parliament (or they may choose to vote in the non-Indigenous ridings). Admittedly this approach is made easier than Canada’s by the more unified linguistic and cultural nature of the land’s Indigenous people (consider Canada’s three Indigenous peoples, let alone the amazing diversity within each group), but there is nonetheless much to be learned here. I can’t photograph all of it out of respect for cultural practices, but I think you’ll get the idea.

A station in Te Papa’s “Gallipoli: the Scale of our War” exhibit for those who want to cleanse themselves in the Maori tradition.
A pounamu (local jade) stone at the Toitu Settlers museum in Dunedin is the heart of the museum.

In fact one of our final experiences in the cultural and political Capital of Wellington (also disputedly the coffee and craft beer capital) is to meet with a Professor at the University who studies this subject. The meeting is happily and generously arranged by one of the interpretation professionals I met through INNZ who did her Master’s degree with Conal MacArthy. We have a rapid and amazing chat over tea before he personally walks us to the University bookstore to point out a few recommended books and then takes his leave.

I could tell you about the wonderful swims we took in the bay, the hikes outside our hostel door, the catamaran sail at sunset, the walk in the Botanic gardens, or the many amazing meals we’ve had. But Wellington is a city I know I will be back to – so there will be time.

But I will show you the Lord of the Rings stuff I did!

This isn’t the exact spot where the hobbit hid under a tree from the Nazgul in Fellowship, but it is very close.
Must… resist… putting… on… the ring.
Weta Workshop offers tours of their studio. Maybe I could get a job as a tour guide if I didn’t spend all my time talking about how awful the Hobbit movies were.
The tour ends with a chat with one of Weta’s sculptors – and they plug a sculpting workshop. See “Interactive” above!

Obligatory Tolkien Quote:

“So, though there was still some store of weapons in the Shire, these were used mostly as trophies, hanging above hearths or on walls, or gathered into the museum as Michel Delving. The Mathom-house it was called; for anything that Hobbits had no immediate use for, but were unwilling to throw away, they called a mathom.”


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