Colonial Museum, Wellington, 29 September 1934, Wellington, by Leslie Adkin. Gift of G. L. Adkin family estate, 1964. Te Papa (A.005434)
1865–1900s: Science and curiosities
The tiny Colonial Museum, Te Papa’s predecessor, opened behind Parliament’s buildings shortly after Parliament moved to Wellington in 1865.
The museum’s first director, Sir James Hector, prioritised scientific collections but also acquired a range of other items, often by donation. These included prints and paintings, ethnographic ‘curiosities’, and items of antiquity.
In 1907, the Colonial Museum was renamed the Dominion Museum and took on a broader national focus.
The idea of developing a public art gallery in Wellington was gathering support, and the Science and Art Act of 1913 paved the way for a national art gallery in the same building. However, it was only in 1930 that this idea started to become a reality, under the National Gallery and Dominion Museum Act.
1930s–1970s: Sharing with the National Art Gallery
In 1936, a new building to house the Dominion Museum and new National Art Gallery opened in Buckle Street. It incorporated the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, which sold its land and donated the proceeds to the new organisation.
In 1972, the Dominion Museum became the National Museum.
The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa Act 1992 demonstrated a shift to represent New Zealand’s culturally diverse society and reach a broader audience. Emphasis was placed on collections and the nation’s access to them.
Under the Act, Te Papa would:
unite the National Museum and National Art Gallery as one entity
unite the collections of the two institutions so that New Zealand’s stories could be told in an interdisciplinary way
be a partnership between Tangata Whenua (Māori, the indigenous people of New Zealand) and Tangata Tiriti (people in New Zealand by right of the Treaty of Waitangi)
speak with authority
represent and appeal to New Zealand’s increasingly diverse society
be a place for discussion, debate, involvement, and celebration
link the past, present, and future.
Te Papa opening day, 1998. Photograph by Michael Hall. Te Papa
Our te reo Māori name, ‘Te Papa Tongarewa’, translates literally to ‘container of treasures’. A fuller interpretation is ‘our container of treasured things and people that spring from mother earth here in New Zealand’.
The name is made up of two classical expressions used in Māori poetry and song:
‘Papa’ can be used to describe:
Papatūānuku (earth mother) – including New Zealand, where the museum is located
a papahou (carved Māori treasure box) and also the beloved homeland – te papa kāinga.
‘Tongarewa’ refers to:
a type of greenstone, such as the mauri (life force) stone on Te Marae
any other kind of treasure, such as a well-loved chiefly person.