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A living memorial

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A living memorial

Almost a third of the 18,166 New Zealanders who died as a result of the First World War have no known graves; buried half a world away from their grieving families. Auckland War Memorial Museum was built by a community that needed a place to remember those who died.

An ink and watercolour drawing by the Auckland architectural practice Grierson, Aimer and Draffin.

Grierson, Aimer and Draffin (1920s). Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tamaki Paenga Hira. PH-ALB.

A local design

This beautiful ink and watercolour drawing by the Auckland architectural practice Grierson, Aimer and Draffin, helped them win the 1922 competition for a new War Memorial Museum for Auckland. It was fitting that from 74 anonymous entries submitted worldwide from 'some of the best architects in England', a local firm was behind the winning design. Hugh Grierson, Kenneth Aimer and Malcolm Draffin had all been in active service (two lost brothers in the war), and knew only too well the mood and expectations of the local community.

Architectural drawing of a niche on the exterior wall, with 'their names shall remain for ever and ever' inscribed above it.

Grierson, Aimer and Draffin (1920s). Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tamaki Paenga Hira. PH-ALB

Parthenon on the hill

The 1920s was a period when ties to Great Britain were still strong amongst the Pākehā population, and many of the country's architectural styles were reused in New Zealand cities. Although Britain's fascination with the neoclassical Greek Revival style was all but over by this time, references to Classical Greece continued on into the early 20th century in Europe and the New World.

The commanding site atop Pukekawa – a volcanic crater, Māori pā and prominent hill overlooking the Waitematā harbour – recalled the rock promontories of the Mediterranean coastline dotted with Greek temples. Many soldiers would have seen these ancient sites, including the building's architects, and symbolism from Classical Greece was thus useful on many levels. It was associated with ideas of nationalism (important for the War Memorial dimension) and intellectual rigour (for the Museum function).

The British Museum of 1852 was in Greek Revival style. And the choice of the Doric order, with its beautiful fluted columns and simple entablature, gave an air of strength and solemnity.

In the book A Noble Prospect, Richard Wolfe notes: "The building would be seen from a distance, and this dictated a simple composition of strong light and shade. For both aesthetic and economic reasons, they chose Greek Doric style; at close range it presented the quiet dignity appropriate for a memorial, while its simplicity gave it the advantage of being relatively inexpensive to construct."

Auckland War Memorial Museum seen from Mechanics bay, with the Strand at bottom of hill.

Grierson, Aimer and Draffin (1920s). Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tamaki Paenga Hira. PH-ALB

A significant site for Māori

Pukekawa has a long and important history for Māori as a place of habitation, hunting and gardening. "The name is a shortened version of Pukekawakawa or the hill of the Kawakawa tree," explains master carver Rewi Spraggon, and there are still many of these trees in the area. In the late 1840s – after the colonial city had purchased the hilltop site and made it a public reserve – Governor George Grey asked Te Wherowhero, the first Māori King, to protect the citizens of Auckland from the threats that where made by Pomare and Patuone from the north. As the capital had been moved from the Bay of Islands to Auckland, so did commerce and trade, which angered northern chiefs. Te Wherowhero stayed at Pukekawa with his kinsmen of nearly 400, although Auckland was never attacked.

A view across Pukekawa to the harbour in the 1860s.

Unknown (1860s). Domain. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tamaki Paenga Hira. PH-ALB-94-p50n106.

Today, authorities would be unlikely to locate a building on such a significant historical site; but what seems fitting is the recurring themes of war and peace that echo back through its many histories. These stories continue to be retold by local iwi and the Museum through talks, tours, programmes and exhibitions.

Workman on the Museum roof during construction. Rangitoto and North Head can be seen in the distance.

Grierson, Aimer and Draffin (1920s). Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tamaki Paenga Hira. PH-ALB

Fervently nationalistic

In the book, A History of New Zealand Architecture, historian Peter Shaw notes that 'despite its almost pedantic Classicism, the museum is a fervently nationalistic building'. He cites the many local references and idiosyncrasies in the decoration, including kawakawa instead of laurel leaf in the bronze wreath of the Sanctuary; the taiaha spearhead in the Greek key pattern on the solid balustrade of the Grand Foyer; and the many borrowed Māori patterns to be found on friezes, columns and mouldings.

On the building exterior, 'theatres of war' place names are engraved in the Portland Stone. And below them, plaster sculptures in bas relief, designed by Auckland sculptor Richard O Gross, depict various military scenes, thus narrating the War Memorial purpose of the building. The Cenotaph in front of the Museum was also drawn and detailed by the architects, but a virtual facsimile of Sir Edwin Lutyens' Cenotaph design at Whitehall.

While the walls are faced with Portland Stone, a fossiliferous limestone, from the Portland Island, Dorset, the base and steps are made of 'Coromandel Granite' actually a tonalite from the northwest tip of the Coromandel Peninsula. It seems there was a sincere attempt to blend European references with local ideas or materials, although the European character always dominates. As the New Zealand architect and critic Samuel Hurst Seager commiserated in 1900: "We have no style, no distinctive forms of (architectural) art … our cities are chiefly made up of architectural quotations." By 1929 it seems this was little changed, and ironically it wasn’t until after the First World War that Pākehā started to question ties to Mother England and begin searching for a local architectural identity.

The Museum building, with its attempts at introducing ornament based on local flora and indigenous culture, is a notable example of some kind of search for a sense of place. But with their Beaux Arts training and the traditional expectations of the community, the architects explored these themes in decorative elements only, not in the substance or form of the building.

The World War One Sanctuary on the second floor of the museum, with flags of the Allied Nations who signed the Treaty of Versailles displayed around the windows.

Grierson, Aimer and Draffin (1920s). Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tamaki Paenga Hira. PH-ALB.


The Museum dates back to 1852 when it inhabited a disused farm building near the corner of Symonds Street and Grafton Road (now the site of the University of Auckland), and is the oldest known museum in the country. Its first purpose-built home opened in 1876 on Princes Street and, under the direction of Thomas Cheeseman, it flourished and the building had to be expanded several times.

Moving to Pukekawa/Auckland Domain in 1929 – into a monumental building with the combined War Memorial function – meant the Museum was to play an important new civic role in the community. And this was where all Auckland's war records and collections would be stored and displayed. But it was also to house the region’s significant and ever-expanding natural history, human history and documentary heritage collections.

What is not so well known is that the Auckland Institute and Museum (at that time situated in Princes Street) had lobbied strongly for a dual-purpose project – a War Memorial and a Museum.

The Institute had already secured the Domain site in 1918, 'but in the middle of 1919 citizens had begun to consider the provisions of some suitable War Memorial,' wrote Institute President H. E. Vaile, "and we suggested that, as we held the most suitable site, a considerable sum of money as a start and the wherewithal to furnish the building, the Museum should be adopted as the Auckland Provincial War Memorial."

And so, with a typical antipodean eye for efficiency and economy, the two projects were rolled into one.

View of the Māori Court, lit by skylight. The waka is in the foreground, with Hotunui behind it, the storehouse Te Oha to the right, and the large pataka Te Puawai o te Arawa in the background. The tall carving Te Rangitakaroro is against a pillar next to Te Oha.

Grierson, Aimer and Draffin (1920s). Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tamaki Paenga Hira. PH-ALB.

Later building additions

The 1929 building was designed so that it could be extended in the future. The project for the southern half of the building – faced in concrete rather then stone – was initiated after the Second World War, but was not completed until 1960. It was designed by the architects M. K. and R. F. Draffin – one of the original architects and his son. Another major refurbishment and extension happened in 2006 with the infill of the southern atrium and basement excavation, overseen by Noel Lane Architects.

Auckland Museum viewed from the Domain.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira.

As the Museum embarks on a new period of growth and renewal, under the strategic direction of Future Museum, we remember the words of the first curator and director Thomas Cheeseman from his memorandum of 1919 - What is to be Auckland's War Memorial? "In a broad sense, the chief value of a Museum is that it affords recreation and instruction for every class in the community. There is no distinction of persons. Rich and poor, old and young, all will find its doors open, and all will meet on a common level."

Take in the view from the roof

Further reading

  1. The history of Auckland Museum. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira.
  2. Lorimer, E. (2016). Names on the walls, engraved in stone. 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.


Post by: Andrea Stevens

Andrea is a freelance features writer, author and editor. Her special interests are culture and heritage, architecture and design. She was co-author for the book Beyond the State: State Houses from Modest to Modern (Penguin, 2014).


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