History of the Museum
The founding and building of Auckland Museum
Auckland War Memorial Museum stands on the hill known by Maori as Pukekawa.
It has occupied this site since 1929 when subscriptions raised by Aucklanders in remembrance of their war dead, enabled the construction of what is considered one of New Zealand’s finest heritage buildings.
To this day, Auckland War Memorial Museum is a touchstone of remembrance for families and returned service personnel who wish to honour their loved ones and fallen comrades.
Prior to 1929, Auckland Museum occupied premises in central Auckland, beginning life in a two-room farm cottage in the suburb of Grafton. With one room for the Museum’s fledgling collections and one room for the curator, New Zealand’s first museum soon outgrew this site, relocating to what was the Provincial Council Building in 1867 before moving once again to the old Post Office building in Princes Street three years later.
The Museum’s first custom-built premises, to which it moved in 1876, were just along the road on Princes Street. Under the guidance of the visionary curator, Thomas Cheeseman, the Museum and its collections flourished, necessitating a further move and the commissioning of a world-wide architectural competition to design a new museum for Auckland which would be combined with a war memorial to commemorate soldiers lost in World War I.
Funded by the Institute of British Architects, a £1,000 sterling prize drew over 70 entries, with Auckland firm Grierson, Aimer and Draffin winning the competition with their neo-classical building reminiscent of Greco-Roman temples.
Crafted from Portland stone and designed to reflect the heroic valour of the New Zealand soldier and the ‘classical’ tragedy of battles such as Gallipoli, the Museum’s colonnades are said to be almost an exact replica of the Parthenon’s in Greece.
In the building’s foreground is the consecrated ground of the Court of Honour and the Auckland Cenotaph (empty tomb). The first Cenotaph was a temporary structure of wood and plaster; built and designed by Sir Edward Luytens at Whitehall, London for the Peace Day events of July 1919. Luytens designed an empty tomb on a pedestal in stark severity, without decoration or religious symbols and inscribed to “The Glorious Dead”. The cenotaph captured the grief of an Empire unable to bring home their war dead and subsequently a permanent Portland stone monument was built for the first anniversary of the Armistice in 1919 as a lasting memorial. The Auckland Cenotaph was copied from cinema newsreels as the blueprints for the original Whitehall design were deemed too expensive for their purchase.
The official opening and consecration ceremony for Auckland War Memorial Museum was held on 28 November 1929. The total cost of the building was $NZ250,000.
After World War II, the building was extended to encompass war memorials for the over 4,000 Aucklanders who lost their lives in the second world war, and the growing need for space for the Museum’s collections. The semicircular extension at the rear of the building was opened in 1960, providing two thirds more floor space and the World War II Hall of Memories which now also encompasses the names of those lost in subsequent 20th Century conflicts.
By the early 1990s the Museum was suffering from several decades of neglect and under funding. The building itself was in need of repair, its services were malfunctioning and its exhibitions were old fashioned and run down.
Changes in legislation, governance and management were introduced and a first stage of refurbishment and strengthening of the building, replacement of services, and replacement of exhibitions was undertaken from 1994 to 1999. At the end of that five year period the Museum had been transformed. It had become a major international museum with exhibitions and services the equal to any museum of its kind internationally.
The War Memorial function, too, had been developed; with the Scars on the Heart exhibitions, the “Armoury” and services such as the “Centotaph” database, an extraordinarily powerful research tool combining various resources to provide the most comprehensive record of New Zealand services personnel in action.
But the 1994 to 1999 first stage works had shown that major new developments were necessary for the Museum to be equipped to enter the twenty-first century. In 2000 a second stage project was born, and in 2003 construction got underway. The second stage project increased the Museum’s floor area by 60%, providing collection storage, workshops, educational amenities, exhibition and visitor services, a theatre, curatorial amenities and an events centre.
The second stage works were completed in December 2006, closing the door on twelve continuous years of refurbishment, redevelopment and building. The new development, which extends over seven storeys in the former southern courtyard, is characterised by a suspended bowl-shaped building clad in Fijian Kauri, which “hovers” within the courtyard, and a rippling glass and copper dome which sits astride it.
The new additions—which set themselves apart from the earlier architecture, but which are so sympathetic with it—are from the drawing board of Auckland architect, Noel Lane.
Decorative elements of the building
One of the most beautiful elements of the building is the frieze that runs around the top of the exterior of the building. Each picture depicts a different scene from World War I, or on the extension, World War II. All the armed services are represented.
Engraved above each window on the original building is the name of a battle in which New Zealanders fought. These include Passchendaele, where two of the architects were wounded. On the east side a memorial fountain commemorates the campaign in Palestine and lists the principal engagements. The west side features an identical commemoration of Gallipoli.
The bronze doors of the main entrance are decorated with a poppy design. Poppies now symbolise death in war because these flowers sprang up on European fields where trenches were dug and soldiers buried - the seeds lying dormant until the earth is disturbed. The poppy motif is repeated throughout the interior of the Museum.
At ground level the floor of the central entrance hall is made of terrazzo (marble chips embedded in concrete to form elegant patterns). It depicts a compass, which tells you the directional orientation of the building – the front entrance faces due north towards the sea.