Building an art gallery inside a museum: Construction begins

How do you build an art gallery inside a museum that’s still open to the public?

That’s the challenge facing the team at Te Papa, as construction starts on a brand new art gallery within its walls.

Opening February 2018, the new art gallery will span levels four and five of Te Papa – increasing the space for art in the national museum by 35% to 3,980m2, roughly the size of 15 tennis courts.

Over the coming months, thousands of metres and kilos of materials will be transported into the museum to build the new gallery – including 1.3 rugby fields of sheet lining, enough steel to equal the weight of 467 rugby players and enough timber framing to stretch from Wellington to Porirua.

Te Papa Head of Art Charlotte Davy and Construction Manager Don Gillies. Photograph by Mike O’Neill

To get these massive quantities of materials in and out of Te Papa, the team has had to think outside of the box says Don Gillies, Te Papa Construction Manager.

“The logistics of building a gallery within a museum that needs to stay open and functional are huge,” he says.

However, Zara Potts, Communications Manager at Te Papa, says that the experience for people visiting Te Papa will be “pretty normal,” as most of the construction will happen at night while the city sleeps.

“Te Papa will remain open throughout the construction of the new art gallery. You might hear a few bangs and crashes during the day, but our team will be mostly working like mice at night.”

“1.7 million people come to Te Papa every year - more than eight times Wellington’s population,” says Potts. “This new art gallery will help bring even more people to the capital, and add to our amazing creative culture.”

In addition to the usual requirements for construction sites, the team have to take extra precautions to protect the treasures and taonga within the museum.

“We need to be incredibly careful of dust so we don’t damage any artefacts,” says Gillies. “It’s difficult – have you ever seen a dust-free construction site?”

The solution is to build a temporary wall, eight metres high by 100 metres long, completely enclosing the construction site. This will have a filter fabric to prevent dust from leaving the construction zone.

The lead architect for the project, Warren and Mahoney’s Katherine Skipper, is ready for this challenge.

“It’s not like designing a new stand-alone gallery, where you can build from the ground up. We’ve had to consider how this new gallery will fit within the entire museum; achieving a unique and identifiable experience of art for visitors to Te Papa, alongside the museum exhibitions.”

“We have a lot of experience designing new spaces within functioning public-facing buildings – for instance, our recently completed work at Wellington Airport – and have some strong techniques and strategies for dealing with these challenges.”

Charlotte Davy, Head of Art at Te Papa, says the new space will encourage kids and adults to explore, learn, play, and have fun with art.

“There’ll be something for everyone,” she says. “Our art collection belongs to all New Zealanders, and everyone is welcome to come and be inspired, and find their own meanings in what they see in the new gallery.”

“We’re looking forward to seeing it come to life with art and people when it opens,” says Davy.