Stories hidden inside our building

There are millions of stories contained within the walls of Te Papa – some of them literally!

Pete Bossley, who was Design Director at Jasmax Architects when they designed and built Te Papa, takes us on a tour of the building to reveal some of the lesser-known facts.

The ‘Great Fault Line’:

“The ‘Great Fault Line’ parallels the main fault line a few kilometres to the west. The building’s basically making a statement about our living in peril on this shaky isle, and how we live around it and live with it and just accept all this potential danger of earthquakes and volcanoes.”


An aerial view of Te Papa showing the ‘Great Fault Line’, which begins near the carpark entrance road and continues in a straight line towards the harbour. Photo by Michael Hall, 2006. Te Papa

The ‘Great Fault Line’ cuts the Cable St building in two, taking in the Level 1 entrance space, the Wellington Foyer on Level 2 (pictured), and fully contains Te Ara a Hine, the interior walkway to Rongomaraeroa, our marae.

“Having this fault line rush through here, it’s created this big crevasse of space, which the earthquake might do. We saw this as a huge fissure through the building, which invites people in and up, and this big fragment of space [immediately inside the entrance], which, like Gondwanaland, has sort of slid off sideways and helped to create the space that we’re standing in.

“Then the task was to actually get people to flow up to the orientation area as easily as possible with as few interruptions.”


The ‘Great Fault Line’ near the entrance to Wellington Foyer, 2008. Te Papa

Looking towards Wellington Foyer on Level 2 from Te Ara a Hine, the pathway to Rongomaraeroa. This pathway is contained within the ‘Great Fault Line’.


Te Ara a Hine, 2023. Photo by Daniel Crichton-Rouse. Te Papa

Upon entering Te Papa:

“We were trying to make the space as lively as possible, so when people come in, it’s kind of ... it’s big, but hopefully it’s not too scary – because there was a lot of talk during the design phase about ‘threshold fear’, which is a real thing: a lot of people will walk up to the front door of a museum and turn around and walk away again because they’re just too daunted to go inside. 

“So on the one hand, we needed to [design] a monumental building, but it had to be a friendly building as well.”

On the flow from the entrance to the Level 2 foyer:

“We had to get a link underneath, between the back-of-house and the garage, so rather than keep everything at this level, we had to get it up and above so we could link under.

“But we also quite liked the idea of the flow up towards the harbour. When you go up the ramp, you keep going up and up and up and up, so there’s a constant movement, trying to take advantage of the drama of being on the water’s edge and getting a better view of the sea from up there.”


Photo: Te Papa entrance foyer looking at the staircase that leads to Level 2, 2017. Te Papa

On the materials used for the Cable St building:

“We were under a pretty strong instruction to use New Zealand materials wherever we could.

“We also had to use materials that would last a phenomenally long period of time compared to most building constraints – so exterior cladding is precast concrete coming which came from Ōtaki. That’s pretty well as local as we get.”


Close-up of the material that makes up the exterior of Te Papa’s Cable St building, 2022. Photo by Daniel Crichton-Rouse. Te Papa

Signs of a Nation:

“This is a bit I’m really proud of; I think this is pretty special. We were delighted when Ken Gorbey and co. decided that the Treaty should be in this space and I think it’s done a pretty good job for 20 years.

“There’s a great story about it, actually. The black panels around the wooden panels ... we debated whether to carve the Treaty into stone or not, and I kept saying no, stone’s not a New Zealand material, let’s do it in wood. But then we felt it needed to have a majesty about it.

“The black panel behind it came up because my partner, Miriam, is an artist who uses black sand in her paintings. She only paints with earth, so she makes pigments out of the soil; she gets fantastic colours, but she also uses black sand. So I said, well you could do it.” (cont.)


Overhead view of Signs of a Nation, showing the mounts on the wall containing the English and te reo Māori texts of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, 2015. Te Papa

The black sand on the panels:

“We have a bach on the south side of the Manukau on the west coast where they have these black sand deposits on the beach, so we were about to get it and I suddenly thought, hell, this is Te Papa, we can’t just go and collect black sand off the beach, you’re not supposed to do that, so we had to go through a resource consent process and get local iwi approval.

"Where we wanted to get it from, there was the most beautiful strand of black sand. It happened to be a spiritual spot out at Hamilton’s Gap. And then one morning we just got out of bed at the bach, we were gonna go over and get the sand, and right in front of our bach was this beautiful strand of black sand – so we said, oh bugger it, we’ll use this.

"We filled up 10 big buckets of the stuff, and Miriam spent weeks drying it and washing it, getting all the salt out of it, drying it in the oven at home, batch by batch by batch, and then we lugged it all down here.

"Then while the building was still being built around [us] – and they were still putting ceilings up – there was dust everywhere... She did these panels, you have to do them on the flat, and she has to glue it and sieve it... She got it done and it’s survived the distance really well.

"The amazing thing was that she only used one of those ten pots of sand, so somewhere in the bowels of Te Papa are nine big buckets of black sand.”


Close-up of the black sand used on the mounts in Signs of a Nation, 2022. Photo by Daniel Crichton-Rouse. Te Papa

The harbour-facing exterior:

“There are these peninsulas under the marae, that sloping wall of the building. We saw that as a headland rising up out of the sea: it goes down [sharply] and then it ramps more slowly up.

“We had fondly imagined in the early days that we’d be able to talk the council into getting rid of the wharf so that the ramp could just continue right up into the sea. That would’ve been so beautiful.”


Harbour-facing exterior of Te Papa’s Cable St building, 2022. Photo by Daniel Crichton-Rouse. Te Papa

Windows in Toi Art, Level 5:

“These strip windows there are on the axis of the old Buckle Street museum so if you look right up the middle of this building through those windows, you can see the centre of the old Buckle Street museum. Well, you could; somebody’s probably built a building in the way now, but the intention is there.

“This is really the only space where you can see the full length of the building and experience the kind of scale of it, which is quite nice. And I like the way that it gets used in different ways, which is also good – but I prefer it when it’s used as one big open space than chopped up into lots of little spaces. But at least you’ve got the opportunity to do whatever you like.”


The Toi Art window, 2022. Photo by Maarten Holl. Te Papa (221761). Pictured: Kate Newby, SHE’S TALKING TO THE WALL, 2012–2021. Te Papa

About Pete Bossley