Today was the day we visited Te Papa Tongarewa (Te Papa), the Museum of New Zealand. I had incredibly high expectations as I’ve heard nothing but amazing things. I am happy to say that Te Papa definitely lived up to these expectations and in some areas, exceeded them. We spent most of the day exploring the museum and its numerous fascinating exhibitions that are spread over five levels. The day included a highlights tour, a walk through most permanent exhibition spaces, and a visit to the travelling exhibition Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality. Similar to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, I am going to provide an overview of how we spent our day.
Te Papa doesn’t technically open until 10.00 am (everyday except Christmas Day). We arrived at 9.50 am so that I could take a few photographs of the exterior. We were surprised to discover that the museum had already opened – well not all of it. The cloakroom and ticket desks were open, but, the exhibitions were still roped off. Still, this is a great idea to ease crowd congestion building up outside before the museum officially opens and stagger the groups of people arriving wanting to cloak/buy tickets.
Although this was only something minor, I really appreciated that the museum opened some of its areas early to accommodate those wanting to get a head start on their day. I will note here that the museum has free admission which is pretty unbelievable. The tickets were for visiting the Terracotta Warriors exhibition.
If you are visiting for the first time, I strongly recommend starting your day with an “Introducing Te Papa Tour”. Our guide, Sam, did a great job walking us around all levels of the museum pointing out a few highlights.
On the second floor we learnt all about the ecosystem of New Zealand and its native flora and fauna. One of the more unusual objects in the exhibition Blood Earth Fire was a large stuffed Jersey cow. This cow represented how New Zealand was presented to the world as a major agricultural and farming nation in the 1950s. The stuffed cow would have milk poured through its mouth, down a series of pipes, and into the udders where someone could pretend to milk it.
We then went to the fifth floor to view some contemporary art. We would have skipped this level if it hadn’t have been for the tour. I’m glad we had the chance to see a stunning contemporary art piece by Tiffany Singh titled Indra’s Bow. Hundreds of spices, herbs and gemstones were arranged into a rainbow to show the spectrum of colour we come into contact with in our day-to-day lives. It was such a beautiful installation and even had a colour coordinated exhibition label.
After a brisk walk through the gallery we made our way to see the exhibition Ko Rongowhakaata: The Story of Light and Shadow co-curated with the Rongowhakaata peoples. This was followed by a short stop at the Treaty of Waitangi to learn about the Maori and European relationship.
Our first break of the day spent in the Te Papa Espresso cafe.
Although the line was ridiculously long, we decided to see Gallipoli the Scale of our War before our 2 pm scheduled Terracotta Warriors visit. Luckily the line moved quite quickly. This exhibition is a collaboration between Te Papa and Weta Cave, the special effects and movie studio of New Zealand. I was a little hesitant to see the display as I thought it might glorify war and not offer a new narrative or interpretation.
Overall, it was aesthetically a really powerful display. The huge models of eight individual New Zealand soldiers/one nurse had incredible impact in the space and were accompanied by recorded readings of their journals/letters. After each model, the exhibition continued with a timeline of the War, thematic panels (both static and digital), various objects and some interactive elements. The display cases in the middle of the various rooms were so sleek. I have no shame in admiring exhibition cases.
One of the more interesting displays was an interactive digital board that showed the four main weapons used in the War and how they could harm the human body. For example, you could select grenade. A video displaying the x-ray of an individual started playing showing the impact of the grenade exploding nearby. Then, the file of a soldier who suffered an injury or even death from the selected weapon was revealed. The other three weapons were bullets, shrapnel and artillery shells.
There were two main issues I had with the exhibition overall. Firstly, the design created intense bottlenecks and resulted in people becoming quite frustrated and missing large chunks of the exhibition. These bottlenecks were primarily at the exits from the eight large models as long thematic panels explaining who the individual was were placed in terrible locations.
The second issue I had with the exhibition was its representation of females. Out of the eight large models, one was female. I wouldn’t have had too much of an issue with this if it wasn’t for the fact that the female nurse was sitting on a crate crying, not, for example, engaged in work. Female nurses during World War I played such a crucial role it was disappointing to not see this highlighted.
It is estimated that visitors will spend approximately an hour in this exhibition. This flew by as we spent quite a bit of time stuck in bottlenecks and trying to read some of the labels.
There was still some time before our 2 pm booking so we visited the exhibition Doing it for Themselves: Women Fight for Equality on the third level. The introductory panel stated the aim of the exhibition – “to honour the women who fought, and continue to fight, for gender equality.” Although it was only a small exhibition, it was filled with some important stories concerning the freedom that came with the contraceptive pill and how New Zealand was the first country in the world to allow women the vote.
I enjoyed reading the story of Kate Sheppard who appears on the $10 banknotes of New Zealand. Sheppard was a suffrage campaigner who lobbied for the vote. Banknotes were displayed alongside a tiny woollen hat belonging to Neve Gayford, the daughter of Jacinta Ardern (New Zealand’s Prime Minister). The point of this was to show that Neve Gayford will grow up with the right to vote because of the efforts of those that came before her. The board asked “what inequities will she (Neve) be fighting to change?” A lot, I thought.
Another short break.
To finish our day, we visited the travelling exhibition Terracotta Warriors: Guardians of Immortality.
I just want to take a moment to talk about one of the most impressive things about Te Papa – their commitment to integration of Indigenous language into their displays. This wasn’t just in the permanent exhibition spaces, but, even in the travelling exhibition the labels were in English as well as in Maori. At no stage in our visit did I feel anything was tokenistic or simply added on to appease different groups. Every aspect of the museum was well-integrated and seamless. I have never experienced this level of Indigenous integration before.
Back to the Terracotta Warriors. We were getting a little tired so we didn’t stop to read a lot in this space. We walked through the initial part of the display quite quickly to get to the eight warriors. I was so glad to see they were all on display together. If they had have been separated, it wouldn’t have had as much impact. Instead, the display replicated how they can be found in their original location at Xi’an. Each of the warriors had its own object label sitting to the side so not to obstruct the view.
There were also some great labels in the space with, for example, ten fast facts about the terracotta army. Great for those not wanting to spend their time in the exhibition reading a lot of information.
To finish our day, we visited the gift shop. It had a great selection of goods made in New Zealand as well as some more niche products including museum wax. Had to buy a tub.
Visiting Te Papa was such a wonderful opportunity and confirmed all the good things I had heard. If you are creating a museum bucket list (not that I have been, but, I have been) make sure you add it to the list!