Wellington is well suited for walking around its major cultural experiences. Several important museums and galleries are strung along the waterfront, adjacent to the downtown area, or are just a block or two back from there, while others are a kilometre or so further away.
Start at Te Papa on the waterfront, not just because it’s the biggest and most interesting, but also because it’s the first to open (9am and entry is free). Take at least a couple of hours, and then head either north or south.
To the south (several blocks) is the National War Memorial at Pukeahu Park in Buckle Street (free, and well worth a wander all by itself), and in the old Dominion Museum building behind that is Sir Peter Jackson’s Great War Exhibition, including his latest addition the Trench Experience that takes visitors into a trench high on the hills of Gallipoli.
The House of Compassion Creche, set up by Sister Mary Aubert in 1914 to look after the urban poor, is also in the park and worth a stop.
About a kilometre away (heading west and up the Brooklyn Hill) is the Nairn Street Cottage believed to be the oldest house in Wellington. It was built in 1858 by William Wallis and is beautifully presented and rich with history of the early settlement of Wellington.
Alternatively, head north from Te Papa and seven-minutes’ stroll around the waterfront will bring you to the Wellington Museum (formerly the Museum of City and Sea, but now much improved). This tells of the city’s history and how the 19th and 20th centuries have impacted people’s lives.
Also on the waterfront (next to the Wellington Museum) is the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, which has an ever-changing series of exhibits, often, but not always paintings and other art work. There is also a very enticing display of all styles and genres of art in the Academy Shop – all original works by New Zealand artists.
If you are interested in banking, then head into the city to the BNZ Heritage in the Old Bank Building, opposite what used to be Stewart Dawson’s corner.
The Reserve Bank’s Museum (at the north end of The Terrace, opposite Parliament) has a wonderful econometric model of the economy, where the flow of water simulates how money moves around in the economy.
New Zealand economist Bill Phillips built the MONIAC computer from parts scavenged from a Lancaster bomber when he was teaching at the London School of Economics in the 1940s. Elsewhere in the city there is the Katherine Mansfield House (in Tinakori Road) where she lived as a child, and the Kelburn Cable Car Museum at the top end of the cable car track.
Just a short walk from that museum, down into the Botanical Garden, is the Space Place at Carter Observatory – great fun for kids, and the astronomy is fascinating for children of all ages.
Beyond the city itself, the Police Museum and the Pataka Gallery and Museum are both in Porirua, and then there’s the Dowse Gallery in Lower Hutt and the Printing Museum in Upper Hutt.
Te Papa, supposedly our national museum, has its detractors, most of whom lament that many of the nation’s best art works are locked away and haven’t been viewed since the Dominion Museum was closed and sold to Massey University in the early 1990s.
However, the Toi Art exhibition – a new feature – has some old portraits on display and modern art is there is equal measure. One current exhibition, ‘Pacific Sisters’, is about fashion activism and street style. Te Papa says the exhibition “overturns stereotypes about Pacific culture, ‘dusky maidens’, beauty and sexuality.” In Toi Art there are films from Kiwi pioneer, Len Lye, including his three-minute classic Colour Box from 1935. Made for the British GPO, it still divides critics and audiences.
Two other long-standing exhibitions, ‘Crossings’ and ‘Passports’ continue to fascinate and have a genuine historical and educative role. Crossings is about the waves of migrants who came to New Zealand from all parts of Europe, and Passports focuses on the refugee experience.
For instance, Panayiota Alexiou, a Greek refugee who came to New Zealand in 1951, says, “I was thinking of my family and a better life. We had been shown films and pictures of New Zealand. It looked beautiful, colourful and green and away from all the destruction (of Europe post war), which for Greeks included a lengthy civil war after fighting had stopped elsewhere.”
Poles, Dutch, Croatians, as well as Greeks came as refugees at various times, and in more recent times we have welcomed Cambodians, Vietnamese, Nepalese, Somalis, Ethiopians, Burmese and Afghanis, and more. Some of their stories are captured here.
Homage is appropriately paid to the Māori dimension; there is a copy of what remains of the Treaty of Waitangi, and English and Māori versions are displayed.
The long-standing ‘Shaky House’ sponsored by EQC, which depicts the effects of earthquake and has been running for 20 years, is currently closed for a complete revamp and will be back about March 2019.There are long queues every day for ‘Gallipoli: the Scale of Our War’, a collaboration between Sir Peter Jackson and Weta Workshops which have created gigantic soldiers and very realistic scenes of trenches. Hugely moving and very popular.
At the Wellington Museum (formerly the Museum of City and Sea), the visitor enters through the old bond store with its barrels and sacks. A mechanised rat races back and forth giving a touch of authenticity.
A sign tells visitors that “the 20th century saw the rise of indigenous rights, mass travel and global communications while modernism changed architecture, design and the arts. In 100 stories we show Wellington’s interactions with the 20th century’s major developments and events.”
On the ground floor 100 panels and displays grouped by decade show significant events. For example, the 1913 waterfront strike smashed by Massey’s Cossacks, and Clive Drummond, the first radio personality on the then 2YA station who described his job as a “radiation of joy.”
Rongotai Airport opened in 1929, but later closed because the grass runway got too muddy in winter for the planes to land. The airport moved to Paraparaumu but was back at Rongotai in 1959.The visit of Vice President Nixon in 1953 is there – he described New Zealand as both “prosperous and thrifty”, which reflected his own Quaker values.
In the 1950s there was a housing crisis and an urgently called conference decided the solution was to build low-cost, high-rise apartments in Mt Victoria, Brooklyn, Newtown and Thorndon.
In 1977 the drag queen Carmen ran for the Mayoralty (backed by Bob Jones), and in the 1980s Old St Paul’s was saved. The sharemarket crashed disastrously in 1987. In 1999 the last game was played at Athletic Park.
On the second floor, visitors can see the leather and polished-wood splendour of the meeting room of the former Wellington Harbour Board, abolished in the reforms of local government in 1988. In 1925/6 the board spent £8481 to expand and refurbish its meeting room, a move which reflected its power and prosperity.
The Māori perspective gets full treatment. There is a very good video of the stories of migration and settlement before the Europeans had even got beyond the English Channel or the Straits of Gibraltar.
According to legend, the harbour, Te Whanganui a Tara, was originally a lake filled with taniwha, until one day one of their number burst through the hillside and let the sea in.
Elaborate poupou (wooden posts) with tukutuku (woven panels) by the carver Rangi Hetet, tell the story of Maui with his hook fishing up the North Island, known as Te Ika a Maui.
In the Attic, visitors can watch a 1958 film of the chimpanzee’s tea party at Wellington Zoo, a regular source of entertainment for children’s birthday parties at the time. Breena, Molly and Yoka are just new at the zoo, and duly play up as young chimps do.
There’s footage of American soldiers arriving by ship in 1942, with the RNZAF band playing on the quayside. “Being on dry land seems mighty good,” one soldier says. “The people look friendly,” remarks another.
The war theme is continued at the Great War Exhibition, developed by Sir Peter Jackson and on display at the former Dominion Museum up the path from Pukeahu National War Memorial Park.
Jackson’s latest addition, the Gallipoli Trench Experience, is now open and can be taken separately from the rest of the tour.
It focuses on Quinn’s Post the highest point reached by the ANZACs and described as “hell on earth”.
That “hell on earth” is recreated in the Trench Experience. All the senses are engaged. One sees, hears, touches, tastes, smells the war: death, misery, hardship, mateship and pain.
As you move through the various trenches, crouched and bent over, soldiers, including Colonel Malone who commanded the Wellington Battalion up there, speak of their experiences. It takes about 30 minutes, costs $20 and can be purchased with, or separately from, the Great War Experience guided tour (also $10 and lasting about 45 minutes.)
Both exhibitions are open at least until November 11 this year (the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day and the end of the Great War), but there are discussions in government circles about funding the exhibition to continue as a permanent tourist attraction in Wellington.
Exhibition General Manager Dave Clearwater says about 35–40 per cent of visitors are international tourists, many of whom are Australians. About the same percentage are New Zealanders from outside of Wellington, with the rest being locals.
He says the experience designed by Sir Peter Jackson is “like a film set you can go on”. He is right. It has the same extravagant over-the-top feel that many of Jackson’s films possess.
No doubt the experience is authentic – great care has been taken about that – yet at the same time the piling of effect on effect in a short time span can be a little overwhelming.
On the tour of the Great War Exhibition itself the visitor starts in a replica of a Belgium village, the country where so much of the fighting took place.
One interesting feature is the new language introduced during the war. To ‘break new ground’ was to dig a new trench, but it acquired the meaning of doing something not done before. ‘Guff ’ was a term used to described rumours (of which there were always many), but it came to mean information of little value. ‘Blood bath’ was a German description of the Somme in 1916.There is a guided tour available which takes 45 minutes; visitors see models, colourised pictures, dioramas, story boards and there is the guide’s voluble commentary, punctuated by gunfire and explosions but no shouting or orders as visitors undergo in the more intimate atmosphere of the Gallipoli Trench.
For a complete contrast, the Cable Car Museum is at the Kelburn end of the cable car ride from Lambton Quay – worth a trip for the view alone. The museum recounts the history of the cable car from its origins and opening in October 1902 to the present day. Volunteers have painstakingly restored two of the three original cars, one to its 1905 condition, the other as it was in the 1970s when it retired.
The original 32-seater carriages had six open seats on each side. Long-time Wellingtonian Don Stevens recalls that aged about 12, “the whole purpose of riding on the outside when you were a youth was to scrape your shoes along the sides of the tunnel.
“This was the reason for external seats. If they had them today OSH would require padded tunnels to prevent damage to both the shoes and feet of passengers. I remember running for the outside seats; you did not want to ride in the cabins.”
Those still not fully sated by the various wartime experiences should check out the Western Front, a digital audio-visual guide to New Zealand’s World War One story available at www.ngatapuwae.nz/westernfront
For the more casual visitor, 2–2.5-hour walks around Wellington are offered ($20 an adult) at Wellington’s i-SITE in Wakefield Street, just a block back from the waterfront. The city offers many rich historical experiences and is easily covered on foot.
- First published in NZ Today.