On 19 September 1922 a jury of citizens announced the result of the international competition to design the new Auckland War Memorial Museum on the Domain, overlooking the Waitemata harbour. The Museum has a rich archive of original architectural designs, specifications, photographs and press cuttings relating to the international competition which is explored in the video and topic page below by Auckland Museum's Tumu Whakarae Chief Executive Dr David Gaimster.
“Those who are acquainted with the working of the Museum are aware that it has arrived at a stage in its history when the growth of its collections has altogether overtaken the existing accommodation. The present buildings have served their purpose, and are now totally unfitted for any scheme of development worthy of the name. In addition, they are unworthy of a city of the size and importance of Auckland… one conclusion remains:- to erect a new Museum for Auckland, planned on such a scale, and equipped in such a manner, that it may adequately serve for the recreation, instruction and intellectual advancement of the people of Auckland.” - T.F. Cheeseman, ‘What is to be Auckland’s War Memorial?’, For and on behalf of the Auckland Institute and Museum, 31 May 1919.
Following its foundation in 1852 in a local farmhouse and rapid development in purpose-built accommodation and with multiple extensions from the 1870s, by the early 20th century it was apparent that the collections of the Auckland Museum had once again far outgrown the space available to them. Its first professional curator, Thomas Cheeseman, lobbied to construct a building for a museum that could take its place amongst the “chief museums in Australasia”, and by 1920 it was resolved that the erection of a new combined museum and war memorial would be the most appropriate means of commemorating those who had given their lives in the Great War.
Writing in 1917, curator T.F. Cheeseman noted the heavy investment being made in the museums and galleries in cities around the world. He made a point of citing the development of Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Museum, opened in 1901 with the profits of the city’s 1888 exhibition. With its flamboyant and eclectic mix of architectural styles emblematic of imperial and of civic pride, its object was to display to visitors the geology, zoology, civilisations and great artistic achievements of humankind. As such, it was divided into departments: art upstairs, the natural world and artefacts, including ethnography, downstairs. “There can be no doubt that Glasgow has shown greater appreciation of the value of Museums, both by the civic authorities and the citizens generally, than almost any other British city” enthused Cheeseman. In October 1920 Cheeseman identified the National Museum in Washington DC, opened in 1910 (now the National Museum of Natural History), as one of the best designed new museums in the world: “Its internal plan is remarkably well arranged, and the needs of each branch of the collections have been carefully studied... every advantage has been taken of modern modes of construction, and modern ideas as to the planning of Museums.”
Auckland City Council granted the site of Observatory Hill on the Auckland Domain as the site for the new museum: for a building “to be planned on an impressive and dignified scale, that will consist of a Museum and war Collection, and will be treated in such a manner as to keep permanently alive the purpose and aim of its existence as a memorial of the Great War” with “a ‘Hall of Memory’, in which will be emblazoned the meritorious deeds of many heroes.”1 The Mayor of Auckland, J.H. Gunson, as President of the Auckland Institute and Museum, negotiated a £25,000 subsidy from the Prime Minister on the basis that the sum would be matched by public subscription.
This foundation gift caused much consternation in Wellington, as the Dominion and Star newspapers reported. There it was felt that the Dominion Museum should be privileged for state funding over the needs of the ‘provincial ‘museums and the Auckland grant triggered an intense campaign of lobbying for more funds for the Dominion Museum. The government grant was swiftly followed by a donation of £25,000 from the Auckland Savings Bank and £2,000 from the Auckland Racing Club. The campaign for public funds had begun.
The Council of the Auckland Institute and Museum worked with the city’s Engineer’s department to develop “tentative plans, by which it is estimated a building to satisfy the requirements of the museum and to serve as an inspiring memorial of the war will cost not less than £130,000.” 2 Public meetings of citizens were called throughout September and October 1920 to discuss the ‘ways and means’ to raise the balance of funds required, resulting in the appointment on 22 October 1920 of a Citizens’ Committee to promote and organise a public appeal.
Given the scale and importance of the project, Auckland citizens lobbied in the press for a public architectural competition. There was little confidence in the city’s Engineer’s Department having the experience or flair to design the new museum. A “CITIZEN” wrote to the Editor to demand: “a museum building of dignity and beauty, worthy of this city and the treasures to be stored within its walls” and that “a public competition should be invited for designs, so that choice may be made of the best, and no consideration of petty economising in cost of designs should deter us from having use of the best talent available” 3.
A cartoon lampooned the idea that the new museum would be designed by committee, and not via a competitive architectural commission. 4 As the correspondent CIVIC PRIDE put it to the Auckland Star on 12 September 1920: “Are we in Auckland to have such a folly or a monument, ideal and worthy, reflecting the best that is in us, a tribute to ‘Our Glorious Dead?”.
To loud applause at a public meeting on 22 October 1920, the Mayor and Chairman of the Citizens’ War Memorial Committee, Mr J.H. Gunson, pledged that competitive designs would be called. By mid 1921 the public appeal had raised a total of £120,000, boosted by further gifts of £4,000 each from the NZ Insurance Company and the South British Insurance Company and £1,000 from the Bank of New Zealand. By this stage, the fund target was now £200,000. In July 1921, Mr Gunson observed that the style and quality of the museum memorial building would depend on the success of the public appeal for funds: “Whether the building should be plain concrete, or a more ornate and dignified design faced with stone, depended entirely on the response of the public to the appeal for funds.” 5
The notice for the architectural competition and its schedule of requirements was published in June 1921. Its preamble noted the:
“double object of providing a noble and dignified building suitable for the WAR MEMORIAL of the City and Provincial District of Auckland, and which will also form a worthy repository for the Collections of the Auckland Museum, including its unrivalled Maori Treasures”.
“The building is to allow for extensions harmonising with the building, now projected, so as to ultimately utilise the whole site, not more than one half of which is to be occupied by the building now designed.”
“The style of the proposed building is left to the discretion of the competitors, but there must be no departure from the schedule in the matter of accommodation, and strict regard must be paid to securing the best results from the most modern treatment of the lighting and ventilation of the building, which are matters of vital importance…”
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The competition would be judged by a panel of five nominated by the NZ Institute of Architects and the joint committee of Council and Citizens. The Institute of British Architects in London committed to assist the competition with a grant of £1,000. As a consequence, competition winners would receive a prize of £650; whilst the second and third placed designs would be awarded £250 and £100 respectively.
Some 400 editions of the Conditions for Competitive Designs (1921) were distributed around the Empire. Key desired features of the Schedule of Requirements for the new Museum were included.
In addition to the need for displaying collections commemorating the Great War, Thomas Cheeseman confirmed the second purpose “will be effected by a general museum which the valuable treasures possessed by the present Auckland Museum will be more fully and adequately displayed and room provided for their proper expansion.” He argued:
“Auckland had in its Museum an unequalled series of exhibits illustrating the manners, customs and mode of life of the Maori race. … The collection was in good order and condition, but, from want of space it was not exhibited in a manner worthy of its great value and importance. Nor was it being exhibited in a manner worthy of the dignity and position of the largest city in the dominion. One of the chief reasons for moving the Museum’s collections to a new and much larger building was to provide a fitting home for the Maori treasures, a home in which they would command the attention, not only of the citizens of Auckland, but also of visitors from all parts of the world, and which would be large enough to permit the full development of a general Maori collection” 6.
Historian and ethnographer of the Pacific, Peter H. Buck, also known as Te Rangi Hīroa, commented that “the prospect of adequately housing the Maori collection in Auckland Memorial Museum should give great satisfaction to students of the Maori people and to the Auckland public” 7.
In August 1922 The Auckland Star confirmed that 74 competitive designs for the Auckland War Memorial Museum would be considered by the jury appointed by the joint committee of citizens and members of the Auckland Institute, 25 of which were expected by special dispatch from London. It also reported that the committee would meet shortly to secure a suitable hall for the display of the competitive design to “facilitate the work of the jury of awards”.
The 74 design entries from around the world, including Great Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia and India, were displayed anonymously in Harbour Board Shed No.16 in time for the jury to begin its work on 11 September 1922. The exhibition remained open to the public for several weeks following the jury decision, with an admission charge of 1 shilling. After nine arduous days of judging, on the 19 September, the competition jury wrote to the Mayor of Auckland, Mr J.H Gunson, to confirm results of its deliberations and the placing of the winning designs. The jury acknowledged that:
“a building containing the accommodation demanded by the conditions could not possibly be erected for the amount stated in those Conditions [for Competitive Designs]”. It could not, therefore “reject any design upon the grounds that the cost of erecting the building shown therein would exceed the stated sum.”8
It considered that the “only proper and only possible course in these circumstances was to give first place to those designs which gave the required accommodation disposed in the most economical manner, having due regard to the prime requirements in the Conditions that the building should be a ‘noble and dignified’ one and ‘suitable for a war memorial’, and that it should function properly as a museum”.
The winning entry of the international competition for the design of the proposed War Memorial Museum was won by a local Auckland architectural practice of Grierson, Aimer and Draffin. The Press reported that “the building described by the authors is handsome to a magnificent degree, and sufficiently imposing and dignified to make it impossible for even the casual observer to fail in appreciation of the purpose which it will represent - the perpetuation of the memory of those men and women from the Auckland district who died in the late war.” 9
The newspapers celebrated the fact that the architects had all served in the Great War, seeing action either at Gallipoli or the Western Front. Making optimal use of the commanding position overlooking the Waitemata harbour, the Auckland’s new Parthenon would be distinguished by tall Doric columns supporting an attic panel quoting Pericles: “The whole earth is the sepulcher of famous men. They are commemorated not only by columns and inscriptions in their own country, but in foreign lands also, and by memorials graven not on stone but on the hearts of men” 10.
The new temple of the muses was designed in homage to the vision forged through the experiences of New Zealand servicemen who had first seen this Aegean architecture on the decks of warships and who had served at Gallipoli, their very own Trojan War.
The second place in the competition was awarded to the practice of Maclaurin and Mitchell of Wellington and the third to the Auckland firm of Le Petit and Downer of Takapuna, Auckland. Whilst highly meritorious, the jury felt that these designs had not combined the general museum and memorial features as successfully as Grierson and co.
The winning colonnaded Doric architecture of three storeys, while meeting the demands of a commanding site, offered “the best solution to the requirement of quiet refinement essential for memorial purposes”. As the architects argued in their submission, “as in the case of the classical Acropolis, due consideration must be given to the fact that the building will be seen from afar, therefore a simple composition of strong light and shade is determined upon. The curved ascending lines of the wooded hills dictate… a decided horizontal treatment particularly of the building skyline and obviates the necessity of a surmounting tower or dome”.
In addition to the Periclean panel above, large funerary urns, together with Roman fasciae and oak and laurel wreaths carved into the stone, reinforced the memorial and imperial characters of the architecture. A Court of Honour, with a cenotaph at its centre, would provide added dignity to the building entry. Progressing through a soaring peristyle entry hall, combining carved classical and Māori Pacific ornament, the visitor would arrive at the Museum’s centrepiece, the Māori Court. Above, across the axis of the building, a memorial hall would be clad in marble for the inscription of Auckland's roll of honour. Provision was made for the possible future extension of the building towards the south of the site.
Due to public demand, the exhibition of the competition entries continued on Queen's Wharf until the end of September. On 23 September the NZ Herald reported that large crowds visited the exhibition throughout the day and evening. It was noted that “the general opinion seemed to be that the winning design was unquestioningly the most attractive and most suitable of those shown. One point which impressed many was the remarkable similarity of many of the designs, practically the same features being embodied in perspectives sent from opposite ends of the world”’.
The press received a large number of articles celebrating the winning design, including one by F.C Rollett published in the Herald on 29 September, under the title “A practical educational force”. The correspondent argued that the museum “can be, and should be, more than a show place for curios, antiquities, and such like things. Under ordinary circumstances it is one of the most practical and democratic and wide reaching of all our educational institutions”.
By January 1923 the public appeal for the building of Auckland War Memorial Museum had raised £140,000. Fundraising intensified and in March that year Grierson, Aimer and Draffin pledged £1500 to the campaign fund, in effect returning their competition prize money and commissioning fees. In July 1924 tenders for construction were released in line with the architects’ estimate of £190,000. The Herald reported that a critical milestone had been reached and that a final campaign for the balance of funds would be launched: "only faintheartedness would suggest it will not be speedily attained.”
Witnessed by a large gathering of citizens, the foundation stone of the Auckland War Memorial Museum was laid by the Prime Minister, the Hon. J Gordon Coates, on 1 August 1925. The building would be completed and opened in 1929. Sadly, Thomas Cheeseman, the progenitor of the War Memorial Museum project, was not present. He had died in 1923, having given over 50 years' service to the Auckland Museum.
2nd and 3rd Place Competition Designs
 Auckland’s War Memorial Museum. I. What has been Achieved. II. What remains to be done, Council of the Auckland Institute and Museum, October 1920
 'The War Memorial' New Zealand Herald, 16 October 1920.
 'The War Memorial Museum' New Zealand Herald, 21 June 1920.
 ‘Suggested Design for Memorial by our Infant Prodigy’Auckland Star, 18 September 1920
 'War Memorial Museum' New Zealand Herald, 7 July 1921.
 'New Auckland Museum' New Zealand Herald, 12 July 1921.
 'War Memorial Museum' New Zealand Herald, 6 August 1921.
 'Report of the Adjudicators' Auckland Star, 21 September 1922.
 'Auckland's Memorial', Press, 27 September 1922.
 Thucydides 'Pericles' Funeral Oration', History of the Peloponnesian War, 2.43.
Cite this article
"What is to be Auckland's War Memorial?". Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 16 September 2022. Updated: 13 October 2022.