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Wild Child

This Gallery presents a history of childhood in New Zealand over the past 150 years, explained in terms of the mirror themes of freedom and restraint.

Wild Child looks at the patterns of play and routine that transformed the wild colonial child of the 1880s into the cherished modern child of the 1950s.

The exhibits are grouped into three areas - the twin citadels of control that were the Home and the Schoolhouse - and the Wild Space in Between.

Wild Space

Wild-Child 560At the entrance to the Wild Space stands Rajah, Auckland Zoo's famous wayward elephant whose unpredictable behaviour led to an unfortunate early end. Resident in the Museum since the 1930s, Rajah is an icon of Auckland Museum and Aucklander's childhoods. 

This space "in between" school and home is where children invented their own games and took up the endless opportunities afforded behind the bike sheds, by the fields on the way to school, by the gullies, bush and beach off the path, and by the neighbour's overgrown section.

In the Wild Spaces, playing without restraint, children developed and learned games and outdoor pursuits that became part of the universal fabric of childhood in New Zealand. These were games passed on by a children's sub-culture, without adult interference. Wild Child shows the toys children made - knuckle bones, hoops, stilts, peashooters, spud guns and bows and arrows. Some of their hapless targets are also on view, captured within a towering treehouse that dominates the central Wild Space. 

At the tree's base are cherished pets owned by the New Zealand child. Inside the tree house are the cache of precious objects cherished by children taking time out from the adult world.


Home represents a distillation of the life that New Zealand children led under parental control. There are the chores around the home and the odd jobs that helped contribute to the family economy, especially in the 19th century, such as collecting bottles and scrap and newspaper rounds. The mainstays of pocket money expenditure are also represented at the fantastical lolly shop. Toys and games on display suggest early social differentiation, changing fashions and consumption habits.

The changing fashion in the toys they selected is evident as families became more prosperous - with fewer children to appease - and could provide more playtime possibilities. Today's "cyberkids" are represented by their bedroom spaces. With their money and different possessions around them, could this really be the last refuge of the "wild child"?

Homage is paid also to the baby industry of a nation keen to colonise itself. The paraphernalia of babyhood is displayed and a special area is dedicated to the "Baby King" Dr Truby King - the first New Zealander ever to appear on a postage stamp and the founder of baby and mothercare association, Plunket. A sobering counterpart is a display that emphasises the high infant mortality rate of the 19th century. The story is also told of the infamous Minnie Dean, a colonial baby farmer and murderess.


The second citadel of control, School, opens in a small rural schoolhouse circa 1900, providing the setting for a story of strictures and teacher controlled behaviour. School lockers suggest the spaces that schoolchildren retained for themselves.

Displays show that as the state increasingly took responsibility for child health and welfare, teacher control expanded into the school yard with organised play, military drill and physical education. The school health icons of school milk and "the murder house" (or dental surgery) will be familiar to all New Zealand visitors.