Remembering Te Papa’s opening day

Remembering Te Papa’s opening day

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.

Te Papa's opening day 14 Feb 1998. Te Papa
Te Papa’s opening day 14 Feb 1998. Te Papa

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.”

Crowds in front of Te Papa
Queue savers at Te Papa opening, 1998. Photo by Neil Price. Wellington City Archives, 2011/51-5-396

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.

Steph's friend early morning at the opening, 1998
Bernadette O’Gorman waiting for the waka to arrive outside Te Papa early in the morning. Stephanie recalls “We were trying to wake up with takeaway coffees, knowing that we had a long day ahead of us. This photo shows just a small part of the huge crowd waiting for the opening of Te Papa.” 14 February 1998. Photo by Stephanie Gibson

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.

A waka being rowed in front of Te Papa
Te Papa opening, 1998. Photo by Neil Price. Wellington City Archives, 2011/51-5-396

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.

Entrance to the Time Warp, 1998. Te Papa
Entrance to the Time Warp, 1998. Te Papa

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!


  1. The queues were more manageable by late in the day. I remember the NZSO, Mere Boynton and others playing Gareth Farr’s “Te Papa” – spine tingling.
    10 years later we had mokupuna and they’ve grown up with the place – storytime and the interactives, NZSO&RNZB days, golden days, the meeting houses, the Aztec exhibition, Gallipoli.

  2. I was there. It was one of the highlights of my life. I send my best to all who remember and to everyone who carries out the tradition today. Thank you for your incredible work. Elaine Heumann Gurian.

  3. I was there!, and I will be again today. It was a day of many highlights, for me one special memory was the performance of Gareth Farr’s amazing ‘Te Papa’.

  4. Valentine day 20 years ago, hope you are celebrating St Valentine’s Day then!

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