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Te Papa Tongarewa: Celebrating New Zealand Culture
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Te Papa Tongarewa: Celebrating New Zealand Culture

Picture of Melissa Pearce
Updated: 12 December 2015
One of the largest museums in the world, Te Papa Tongarewa is the national museum and art gallery of New Zealand. The museum is renowned for its use of advanced technology to display the multi-faceted aspects of New Zealand’s cultural and natural histories. We take a look at this vast institution, and the ways in which it exhibits a comprehensive collection of artefacts and information on New Zealand and its heritage.

Meaning ‘Our Place’ in Māori, Te Papa Tongarewa aims to be a multicultural venue within which the public can engage with all factors to do with the history of New Zealand’s arts, culture and physical beginnings. The museum achieves this by arranging their vast and ever changing collection into five specific areas: art, history, Pacific, Māori, and natural environment, and also organises educational programs and schemes on top of their interactive exhibitions.

The museum holds wholly community-driven goals by appreciating the diversity of the population of New Zealand, seeking to portray this quality with reverence in their exhibitions. One way the museum has displayed this is through their ongoing exhibition ‘Passports’, which is displayed within the ‘History’ sector. This collection outlines the many different nationalities that have migrated to the country, and is adapted roughly every two years in order to give each community the chance to display their respective histories. This section of the museum stands out especially during World Refugee Day, during which time they hold a variety of events, enabling young refugees to tell their individual stories across all artistic mediums, including art and poetry.

Displaying New Zealand’s incredible wealth of history over five storeys, the museum itself dates back to 1865 with the opening of its predecessor, the Colonial Museum. The logo of the museum, a thumbprint, further emphasises the institution’s focus on cultural heritage. In addition to showing the country’s influence from communities across the globe, some of the most prominent displays within Te Papa focus around New Zealand’s indigenous people, the Māori. By giving detailed history information about key Māori figures, such as the first Māori king, different tribes, authentic newspapers and detailed diaries, the museum makes each visitor aware of New Zealand’s unique Māori background and the ways in which they explored the Pacific, creating the first settlements.

Guiding the visitor back through history, the museum not only shows how New Zealand has culturally changed, but also how it has physically evolved through the years. Using advanced motion sensor technology, you are shown the beginnings of this beautiful landscape from prehistoric times and how its horizons and natural habitats were created. Carefully organised and displayed, the museum is home to the biggest and most extensive collection of plants and animals from the lands that make up this archipelago. With the country boasting such a vibrant natural habitat, there are regular ongoing discoveries of new species, and the national museum plays an integral role in the identification and organisation of these species.

In addition to the ecological and cultural history of New Zealand, the museum houses an impressive collection of visual art. The National Collection first began in 1905, and the foundations of this now significant accumulation were laid from acquisitions made from its beginnings until 1936. These early collections maintained a focus on British art, but with gradual growth it eventually attained works which represent the many creative feats of New Zealand artists themselves, and today pieces from all the traditional visual arts can be seen, with a recent increase in contemporary commercial design.

The current building was built over four years, and has received international acclaim for its innovative architectural design. With much of the interior using New Zealand grown wood, the structure sits on 150 shock absorbers, an ingenious design that ensures the safety of visitors inside during even the most violent of earthquakes. There has been some criticism however, over the museum site and its location on reclaimed land, situated directly next to an earthquake fault line. This has caused some concern within the public domain.

Celebrated both internationally and across Aotearoa (New Zealand), Te Papa targets the core principles of learning, understanding and encouraging sincere relationships with the local communities. Through doing this, the museum aims to display New Zealand’s diversity by providing an array of viewpoints in order to give a well-rounded and informed collection of information and artefacts.