20 years ago today, on 14 February 1998, Te Papa opened its doors for the first time. The day was marked by food, music, and celebration. Hay bales laid out on the forecourt lent the occasion a rural, and particularly Kiwi, flavour. New Zealand bands entertained the huge crowds. The sun shone, and the wind blew.
Author Conal McCarthy, history curator Stephanie Gibson, and ex-staff member Lauren McEwan-Nugent share their memories from the day. Please share your memories in the comments.
Conal McCarthy – Author of Te Papa: Reinventing New Zealand’s national museum 1998-2018
Just before midday, after a Māori ceremony, prayers, songs and speeches, Prime Minister Jenny Shipley said a few words:
“As New Zealanders, we think of ourselves as young, as raw and fresh, but one day, in looking in the mirror, we find, to our surprise, we have grown up . . . This building behind us is such a mirror. It is a place where we can look at ourselves, at our past and at our present, at our natural heritage, at the unique mosaic of cultures that is New Zealand.”
At 12 o’clock, two children, a Pākehā girl and a Māori boy, holding hands with famous yachtsman Sir Peter Blake, declared the Museum of New Zealand open. For the public, this was the end of a long wait to see what was inside the new building on Wellington’s waterfront. For several years they had seen (and heard) the construction, and witnessed collections being shifted from the old National Museum in Buckle Street into their new home. From early in the morning the crowds lined up, and after the short opening ceremony they poured in. They kept coming, all that day up to midnight, and again the next day, and the next. The numbers were unprecedented.
For the staff, this was ‘day one’, the culmination of several years of hard work, dreaming, planning, developing and realising. There were feelings of exhaustion, relief, joy, and sadness for those who did not live to see the project completed. I was one of those staff, and I remember looking down from above as the crowd swept in the front door for the first time, to the sounds of Gareth Farr’s stirring music, specially commissioned for the occasion and performed by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Then I ran up to level four to the Māori Discovery Centre Te Huka a Tai, which I had worked on, and was there when the first visitors came through the door, a local Māori family. ‘Kia ora,’ I said, ‘welcome to Te Papa!’
– Extract taken from the book Te Papa: Reinventing New Zealand’s national museum 1998-2018 published Feb 2018 by Te Papa Press
Stephanie Gibson – History curator, 2000–present
I remember the day Te Papa opened very well – a bunch of us went down to the opening blessing early in the morning of Saturday 14 February 1998. There’d been a lot of intrigue leading up to the opening, and there were thousands of people thronging the waterfront. We watched the waka coming in and Sir Peter Blake opening the museum. I felt proud and excited, and that something momentous was happening.
Te Papa was open all that day and until midnight. There were so many people trying to get in, that they had to control the queues snaking through the car park and forecourt with rows of hay bales. You could sit on them when you got tired.
That night was unusually hot and windy. We were out dancing at the annual Devotion dance party over at the old Overseas Terminal (now apartments). In between dancing, we visited Te Papa in our skimpy outfits. I don’t remember what I saw, but I remember the great vibe. I said to anyone who cared to listen – “I’m going to work here!” And I did – two years later I became a curator.
Lauren McEwan-Nugent – Wellington local
I was 8 years old when the new museum opened. I was an absolute museum nut and had missed the old museum in the time it had been shut.
Mum and I joined the massive queues on the forecourt and ate Fruju Tropical snows in the scorching heat.
When we finally got in through the rotating doors into the cool museum, my first impression was just how big the spaces inside were. The ramp to the marae seemed endless and the huge space that became VOID stretched up higher than I could believe.
Kids crowded around the rolling stone and united to push it to a stop. It would always roll on again on its bed of water.
The Time Warp in what is now Gallipoli: the scale of our war blared with noise from the virtual bungee machine, the dragon boat race ride, and the sheep shearing game.
We queued for Golden Days by the corrugated iron station wagon and there were people sitting on laps, on the ground, everywhere. The tiny room was packed. I received a huge shock when the machine gun ‘opened fire’ and shielded my eyes from the scenes of animal slaughter. I eventually learned the Chesdale Cheese jingle from Golden Days.
By the marae we polished the huge piece of pounamu. I still polish that greenstone every time I pass it. It’s still not kakariki (green) all over.
We went through the café with lava lamps on the tables, going out into the newly-planted Bush City. Mum and I added our thumb prints to the visitor’s book with thousands of others.
I went to the museum as often as I could for the next 19 years.
Happy birthday, Te Papa!