Te Papa celebrates 20 years of Our Place

This Valentine’s Day, New Zealanders are celebrating their 20-year love affair with the national museum, Te Papa.

This Valentine’s Day, New Zealanders are celebrating their 20-year love affair with the national museum, Te Papa.

Te Papa Tongarewa the Museum of New Zealand has held a special place in the hearts of New Zealanders since the day it opened on 14 February 1998.

In the ensuing two decades, Te Papa Tongarewa (“a container for treasures”) has truly lived up to its popular name, Our Place. From the thousands who queued to be among the first to visit (35,000 people saw Te Papa on its opening day) to the more than 2 million who visited in its first year (not bad for a country that was less than 4 million population at the time) and all the visitors since, it has proven a drawcard for both New Zealanders and international visitors.

By 14 February 2018, Te Papa had hosted almost 30 million visitors and 200 weddings, discovered more than 400 new species, hosted more than 3,000 pōwhiri (Māori welcoming ceremonies), and rocked visitors with more than 1.3 million shakes of its famous earthquake house.

Consistently rated as one of the world’s best museums, and a top attraction in New Zealand, Te Papa’s immersive, interactive approach to storytelling and its biculturalism remains a model for museums around the world.

Even before it opened, at the conclusion of a massive construction project lasting four years, the new building had a high profile and attracted close scrutiny, both at home and internationally. The radical concept for Te Papa was that it would be a bicultural partnership between tangata whenua (indigenous people) and tangata tiriti (non-indigenous people), and incorporate both the national museum and national art collection.

Considered the world’s largest museum building project of the 1990s, Te Papa remains the biggest-ever investment in New Zealand culture and heritage. The elaborate earthworks and construction saw a hotel mounted on wheels and moved off the waterfront site to accommodate the massive new structure.

A landmark both in its imposing physical presence on Wellington’s waterfront and in its historical and cultural significance for New Zealand, Te Papa is rich with symbolism and a forum for the nation. Its marae (meeting place) Rongomaraeoa faces the harbour and serves as a living exhibition space for traditional Māori culture and for contemporary art and design.

The museum has not remained static, continuing to evolve and change over its 20-year lifespan. Major changes lie ahead, beginning with a new art gallery, Toi Art. The NZ$8.4 million space is the biggest change to the museum since it opened and able to hold works never shown there before. The opening on March 17 will reveal major commissions by contemporary New Zealand artists. From Easter, work will begin on a new nature and environment section to open in 2019.

The most popular free exhibition at Te Papa is Gallipoli: The scale of our war, with 1,813,916 visitors from the time of its opening on 18 April 2015 to the end of January 2018. It cost $8 million to create, and was created by Te Papa working closely with Wellington’s acclaimed film special effects maestros Weta Workshop.

From time to time over the past two decades, controversy has raged about exhibits at Te Papa – including protests about the Tania Kovats “Virgin in a condom” artwork – but the public have continued to flock to the museum.

Geraint Martin, head of Te Papa, says its appeal is enduring because it offers a different kind of museum experience. “Museums aren’t cupboards full of old stuff, they’re a mirror held up to society,” he says.  “Our aim is that every New Zealander can see themselves reflected at Te Papa, and international visitors can understand the richness and diversity of Aotearoa.”

Te Papa’s kaihautū (Māori co-leader) Dr Arapata Hakiwai has been with the museum since its earliest days. He says the strength of Te Papa has always been in its ties to the community, and its relationships with iwi, hapū and whanau (tribal groups and families). “We are a place where everyone can feel at home, and everyone can find a place to stand.

“The sense of fun, of joy, of connection and surprise that we see in our visitors, young and old, is the wairua, the energy that powers this place, Our Place,” Dr Hakiwai says.

Te Papa will mark its birthday with free tours and activities, short film screenings and a concert. The museum will be open on Valentine’s Day until 9pm.

Te Papa by the numbers

  • Projected total visitors since opening (up until 14.2.2018): 28,556,141
  • Busiest day: opening day, with 35,000 visitors
  • Number of visitors in its first year: 2,002,977
  • Exhibitions: 170  
  • Most popular ticketed exhibition: Lord of the Rings 1, 219,539 visitors
  • Artworks treated by conservators:  1,580
  • Shakes of the earthquake house: 1.3 million
  • Number of colossal squids: 3 (1 on display and 2 stored for research)
  • Largest object: sailing yacht NZL32 Black Magic, which won the 1995 America’s Cup race
  • New species discovered: more than 400
  • Scientific expeditions:  700
  • Children lost (and found): 3,500
  • Teddies abandoned: 550
  • Lightbulbs changed:  22,000
  • Coffees served: 3 million-plus