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The history of Auckland Museum

The founding and building of Auckland Museum

Auckland War Memorial Museum stands on the hill known by Māori as Pukekawa.

It has occupied this site since 1929 when subscriptions raised by Aucklanders in remembrance of their war dead and 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.

Auckland Museum's third home, in the old Post Office in Princes Street.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. C 14942.

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.

The vacated premises in Princes Street in the early 1930s after Auckland Museum moved to the Domain.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. C 14942. M752/23A-24A

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 Edwin 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 NZP250,000.

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.

Recent developments

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. 

The War Memorial function, too, had been developed; with the Scars on the Heart exhibitions, the 'Armoury' and services such as Online Cenotaph, 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 AtriumThe 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 Architect Noel Lane, who was responsible for the Museum's first stage refurbishments, continued his vision for the Museum with the design of the Atrium. It is, he said, a logical extension of the groundwork that was completed with Stage I. However, while the first stage dealt mainly with the refurbishment of gallery space, the second stage added a new dimension to one of Auckland's most significant buildings.

"There were three important considerations for Stage II: structural isolation, minimum floorplate and maximum usage", says Lane. "The roof is sympathetic in scale and form to the museum, but it's not part of the original structure. It sits comfortably, but doesn't weigh on the building's classical form."

Decorative elements of the building

The northern face of Auckland War Memorial Museum during its construction in the 1920s. Part of Pericles' Oration is inscribed on stonework above the colonnade.

© Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira, AM93-A891-1-3.

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 the First World War or, on the extension, the Second World War.  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 the battles of Passchendaele, where two of the architects were wounded. On the west side a memorial fountain commemorates the campaign in Palestine and lists the principal engagements.  The east side features an identical commemoration of Gallipoli.  The north elevation of the Museum includes an inscription from Pericles’ funeral oration.

Read the Māori translation

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.


Related reading

  1. Lorimer, E. (2016). Names on the walls, engraved in stone. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira.
  2. Stevens, A. (2015). A living memorial. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira.
  3. Stevens, A. (2015). The Auckland Museum frieze: Scenes of war. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira.