The old brown museum, she ain’t what she used to be

At one end of Tory Street is Te Papa, at the other end is the old museum building. Actually, let’s be more formal – it’s the old National Art Gallery and Dominion Museum. Yeah, that’s more like it.

The museum building opened in 1936, but lasted only 60 years, moving into the Te Papa behemoth down the hill. The museum building is now occupied by Massey University’s College of Creative Arts. They put all the pretty subjects into the pretty building.

I have a vague memory of having visited the old museum, but it was in the early ’80s and my memory is fuzzy. I remember that the building was brown, and that’s about it.

I consulted The Shell Guide to New Zealand for Maurice Shadbolt’s take on the museum, circa 1969:

[The museum] has much for visitors. [The] Art Gallery, though its New Zealand collection is patchy and unrepresentative, also has much of interest.

I decided to explore the building and see what ghosts were still lurking.

From Buckle Street, it’s a bit like sneaking up to a haunted house. The old overgrown pohutukawa trees either side of the War Memorial seem spooky and a little menacing. But combine that with the very serious solemnity of the adjacent National War Memorial, and all that’s missing is an engraved warning of certain doom for trespassers.

The old museum

Approaching the building, it seems so full of hope and grandeur. It’s a building that says, “Hey, look at us! We’re a dominion now, and we have a museum and an art gallery! Just like a proper grown-up country.”

But with all the plaques naming great men and events, there is also the knowledge that the building wasn’t enough. It might have looked impressive from the outside, but it soon proved to be too small on the inside.

Inside, the main foyer seems oppressively small. I can’t help comparing it to the Auckland Museum with its grand entrance hall. It’s big and has always managed to keep up with increasing visitor numbers over the decades. But the old Dominion Museum’s entrance hall is so small, it feels like maybe I’ve accidentally walked in the back entrance. But I haven’t.

It was a Saturday so the university was all but empty. The stone surfaces echoed every noise, making me self-conscious of every step. I also had a vague paranoia that maybe I’m not supposed to be there. That a stern person would jump out from behind a pillar and say, “You’re not a student and/or a lecturer! Get out! Get out now!”


I came to the Grand Hall. In the past this housed whare and waka and other everyday objects of traditional Maori life. Now the hall was used to house an exhibition of work by industrial design students.

Massey’s website says the exhibition provides “a quirky interpretation of everyday objects.” See what’s happened? Nothing’s happened. Everyday objects are taken out of their ordinary context and put on display in the Grand Hall.


I noticed the handrails on all the big staircases in the museum building had metal kiwis supporting the rail. It looked a bit kitschy, or possibly quaint. But then I realised that Te Papa is full of such kitschy, deliberate symbolism. It’s done a lot more subtly at Te Papa, but it’s there – “grid-like spaces reflect the patterns of European settlement.”

Outside, I went for a walk around the museum building. Again I was struck by how small it was. How did this make do as the National Museum and Art Gallery? And maybe that’s why Te Papa sometimes feels empty – too much explanatory text and not enough objects. Maybe they just didn’t amass a big collection because they had no room to keep it.

Though, in The Shell Guide to New Zealand, Maurice comments that the “museum’s displays … are well arranged.” I imagine an impeccably organised Manhattan studio apartment writ large. And if you open the giant moa sculpture, there you’ll find an ancient Greek pottery… filled with freshly brewed tea. And that’s half a sixpence for a cuppa.

As I approached the back of the building, I heard some gangsta rap playing. “Oh no,” I thought. I am intruding upon the turf of the notorious Mt Cook G’s. They will surely step me up rool hard.” But when I turned the corner, there were no notorious G’s. A lone speaker was piping out the gangsta rap to no one.

Perhaps this is like the opposite of places that play classical music to keep away loitering teens. Perhaps Massey Uni wants to scare off codgers. “Yeah, piss off back to the War Memorial, gramps. This space is for the youth gone wild!”

Back around the front of the museum building, I took one more look at its audacious facade before I headed off down the hill. The old museum building feels like your aunt whose husband ran off with a younger, sexier (albeit crazy) woman. Eventually your aunt remarries a nice man who treats her really well, but he’s not your uncle and it just doesn’t feel the same like it did in the happier days.


4 thoughts on “The old brown museum, she ain’t what she used to be”

  1. Three things:

    1) I love this entry.

    2) I love your new blog layout/design. The typography is gorgeous and it is so CLEAN. It’s delicious. It’d probably make me read your words even if they were bad, which thankfully they aren’t.

    3) Your use of the Shell Guide to NZ from 1969 has encouraged me to invest in similar books lately: the first being a guide to NZ from the 1950s, with loads of photos and poetry; but also a more practical purchase, a guide to Denmark from 1954, where I’ll be visiting in July.

  2. 1) Cheers.

    2) So do I. I’ve been thinking about using a layout like this for a while, but hadn’t found a WP theme that did what I wanted. I don’t need no twitter feed or thumbnail photos cluttering up my site. (Though I miss having the latest comments list.)

    3) That’s brilliant! I love old guide books and I’m always on the lookout for them. I look forward to hearing about your 1954 Denmark adventures.

  3. Oh, I miss the ‘old’ museum.

    I used to love going there as a kid. I loved that there were corners everywhere, and every time you turned a corner, you were never sure what would be around it.

    Would it be the big moa? Would it be an egyptian mummy?

    When I was about 13, I wrote to the museum asking if I could come in for a day and see what they did. They wrote back (this was in the days before email) and said they’d be more than happy for me to go in for a day. I never ended up going, and I’m really disappointed in my 13 year old self, cos I think that would’ve been fantastic.

    Te Papa just doesn’t have the same feeling for me.

  4. Maybe they just didn’t amass a big collection because they had no room to keep it

    Isn’t one of the recurring complaints about Te Papa that almost all of their mighty holdings are in storage?

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