Growing up with Te Papa – celebrating 25 years of Te Papa Tongarewa

Growing up with Te Papa – celebrating 25 years of Te Papa Tongarewa

Thousands of people have worked at Te Papa – while it was being designed, then constructed, and since it opened to the people of Aotearoa New Zealand on 14 February 1998. Several kaimahi have worked here since before we opened, or from Day One, while many younger kaimahi have only ever known Te Papa as the national museum. Many of us are somewhere in between. As we celebrate our 25th anniversary, some of our kaimahi share their memories of our place of work, Te Papa Tongarewa.

Dr Arapata Hakiwai, Kaihautū Te Papa Tongarewa

Opening on 29 September 2017, the iwi exhibition Ko Rongowhakaata: The Story of Light and Shadow was one of my favourite and most important exhibitions for me over the last 25 years. Its opening marked 144 years since the passing of the master carver of the Te Hau ki Tūranga meeting house, Raharuhi Rukupō. For me, it was deeply personal as I had started working at the museum and worked with many Rongowhakaata elders who had such deep feelings and emotions regarding the wharenui.

This exhibition was highly significant and important as it was really the first time that the Rongowhakaata people had to tell and present their taonga to the world, and to tell their story and history of Te Hau ki Tūranga 150 years after the wharenui was forcibly taken by the Crown in 1867. Seeing the taonga being carried up from the entrance of Te Papa onto the marae before the opening, and then the return of the pou tokomanawa of Te-Apaapa-o-te-Rangi in Te Papa’s collections back to the Whakatō marae after the closing were moments I will always remember.

The Whales |Tohorā exhibition which was first displayed at Te Papa in 2007, was also one of my favourite exhibitions as it showed the deep significance and mana of mātauranga Māori indigenous knowledge equal to and alongside western science.

I can recall being at the initial planning meetings where iwi representatives discussed the idea for such an exhibition. Their overwhelming desire was for the manuhiri to see and feel the mana, power and integrity of our indigenous knowledge traditions. The exhibition included a large number of iwi taonga and perspectives and gave the exhibition a dimension that many others don’t always have.

The return of the ‘ahu ‘ula and mahiole (cloak and headdress) of Kalani‘ōpu‘u in 2016 was also one of my memorable experiences that I will never forget. Feeling the emotion and significance of having these treasures returned to their people and whenua after 237 years was something that Hawaiian people had dreamed about for many many years. It is important to me because of its deep significance in what museums can do for the lives of our many communities. It also shows how taonga can still play an important role in the lives of its people and communities.

A man is making a speech and smiling. There are people standing and sitting behind him. There is also a cloak draped on a mannequin to the right of the image.
Te Papa Kaihautū (Māori co-leader) Arapata Hakiwai speaks at the ceremony to return the ‘ahu ‘ula and mahiole, 2016. The cloak lies flat while a replica is draped on a mannequin. Te Papa

Cassandra Bahr, Humanities Technician and former Visitor Host

Here’s my earliest memory of Te Papa – I was four (the museum’s a year older than me), and the NZSO was playing in the foyer in 2004. They were explaining how conducting worked and asked for a volunteer. I was right at the front and obviously leaping up and down with excitement, so got picked! Then I got to briefly ‘conduct’ the orchestra – I suspect they weren’t really going at the tempo and volume I indicated, but they were all smiling, and the time it felt completely real! For years afterwards I liked to say that I’d conducted the NZSO – I was never asked back though…

That’s from before I worked here of course. Not sure anything quite so exciting has happened, but I think my favourite thing is looking at visitors’ art contributions in the Toi Studio and at exhibitions like Rita Angus. The quality and range of ideas is astounding and there’s always something to make me laugh.

Over the next 25 years, I hope Te Papa continues to thrill kids like 4yo me and continues to be the ‘fun’ museum that all ages genuinely learn from.

A split image of two drawings. One is of two people who look like they're flying and hugging, and one of a woman's head and shoulders.
Visitor contributions from Toi Art, 2022

Dr Sean Mallon, Senior Curator Pacific Histories and Cultures

I have been with Te Papa since 1992, starting as a collection management intern working with Pacific collections in the museum. The two-year internship was part of a recruitment programme for Māori and Pacific peoples to work with collections and help to culturally inform and shape the work of the new museum that would become Te Papa Tongarewa. Projects like this one signalled a shift in museology in Aotearoa New Zealand that would see a sharing of authority and the greater involvement of communities in deciding how their cultural treasures are cared for and what stories are told within the museum’s walls.

Over the last 25 years, Te Papa has supported dozens of interns and many of them are Maori and other Pacific peoples. In the Pacific curatorial area alone I have worked with at least 20 people who have had short- or long-term appointments. Some of them continue to work here and others have moved on to influential roles in the museum and arts sector.

They have gone to other museums and cultural institutions, some have their own consultancies, or teach in universities locally and overseas. One of them, Dr Safua Akeli Amaama has gained valuable experience overseas and returned to a leadership position in Te Papa. Last week, we said goodbye to our colleague Rachel Yates who is the new Pacific historian at Manatū Taonga Ministry of Culture and Heritage.

Te Papa was a cultural undertaking on a massive scale and one that would see the reconfiguring of an institution representing a nation and the histories of its indigenous and settler peoples. It was and continues to be a catalyst for change.

As for myself, over my 30 years here, I have had a couple of different roles, enjoyed many professional opportunities and witnessed so much transformation. However, one of my young video game-playing sons (probably aged around 6 at the time) didn’t quite see how I was learning and growing as a worker in the museum. I remember standing alongside him in one of the staff elevators when he looked up and asked me, “Dad, you know how you work on level three?” I replied “Yes, son…” and he goes, “What do you have to do to move up to level four?”

A man and a woman both wearing blue gloves are looking at and handling a gown in a plastic cover in a museum storeroom.
Sean Mallon, Senior Curator Pacific Histories & Cultures and Rachel Yates, Curator Pacific Cultures with an evening gown, by Priscilla Ale/Evana Couture, 2016. Gift of Parris Goebel, 2017. Te Papa (FE013394). Photo by Mark Tantrum Photography, 2019. Te Papa (145321)

Rachael Wiltshire, Visitor Host

Te Papa is pretty much the only museum I have ever known – I was born in 1994, so a bit before Te Papa opened but I certainly don’t remember the old museum!

My earliest memory of Te Papa is of StoryPlace, which four-year-old me found truly magical. I loved planting the carrots in the garden! I was deeply disappointed when I turned six and was no longer allowed to visit.

As I got older, I got braver, and things that used to scare me (the Earthquake House, Golden Days, the giant baby in the Inspiration Station) became my favourite parts of the museum. Later, I visited the museum on school trips. The summer exhibitions were always a highlight. I would annoy my sister by insisting on reading every single label, and we had to return to the Whales | Tohorā exhibition three times so that I could read everything.

An animatronic oversized baby in a 'cage' in a museum exhibit.
The giant baby in the Inspiration Station 09, 2015. Photograph by Kate Whitley. Te Papa (47771)

Now working at Te Papa as a Host and having grown up in Wellington, it has been so special to rediscover all the things I had loved about Te Papa as a child. I have discovered that StoryPlace remains just as magical as it was 25 years ago – and planting the carrots is still just as much fun, although that might be the nostalgia at work. One of the joys of becoming a host was realising that some of the educators I had learnt from on those trips were now my colleagues, and to my great surprise, I found that some of the things I thought I remembered about the building were never true at all! For example, I swear I remember there being lifts where the bag cages and ATM now live – but clearly that can’t have been correct. And as a small child, I remember one of the highlights was getting to ride the glass lift and glimpse the calendar that was trapped in an alcove behind it. Except that I remember the calendar being from 1994, which means that that memory can’t be totally accurate even if the calendar did once exist!

As for the next 25 years, I hope that Te Papa continues to be a place that both celebrates and debates New Zealand’s identity. I hope that we continue striving towards being a truly bicultural museum and that we take the nation on that journey with us. On a personal level, I hope that I will have completed a PhD in History because I would truly love to write or edit a history of the museum for our 50th anniversary.

Matt Harris, construction worker, early 90s

I was working on the building site when I was about 20, if that, and I remember seeing Grandad in the warehouse across the road. I was in my overalls and hardhat. I hoped that he was proud of me for working hard, it was good to see him.

Another memory was when I was on what was known as P10 – the tall bit that juts out on an angle on the southwestern side of the building – I had to drill into the concrete at the very top. The cherry picker I was in was so high that I had to time each moment when I could put pressure on the drill bit, as the cherry picker was swaying back and forth so much in the wind.

When I finished up, I thought the big grey concrete structure was so dull and lifeless. When I visited after it was completed and open to the public I was amazed at the vibrancy, colour, and life in the building. Neat to experience the transformation. Now I come back every so often with my own kids.

A construction site in an inner city with a harbour. There are cars parked in the surrounding streets and four white and red cranes on the site.
Te Papa under construction, about 1994–95. Photographer unknown. Te Papa (109157)

Courtney Johnston, Tumu Whakarae and former Visitor Host

I remember my first job interview at Te Papa: as a Visitor Host in 2000. I was interviewed by three people and had to do a role-play about stopping a visitor from feeling up an artwork, in a firm but friendly way. The manager who played the visitor was doing an extremely convincing job! But I got my thumbprint shirt and I worked here in the uni holidays, in Golden Days and Parade and TimeWarp. I had never visited the old museum, so I kind of took Te Papa at face value: this is what a museum should be, full of people, touching all the things, jokes on the wall labels.

Then as a proper grown-up, I remember the period when I was applying for my role as Tumu Whakarae. Most evenings I’d walk up to the top of Tangi Te Keo, the Mt Victoria lookout, and look down on Te Papa and think: “Wow. Imagine having that job.” Then for about a year after getting the role, I’d stand up there and think “Oh holy hika, I have that job.”

I think my reverence for the place comes from having seen so many incredible people work here, and so many incredible kaupapa happen at or through Te Papa. And at this time, on our 25th anniversary, I want to mihi to the extraordinary women leaders who came before me in the co-leader roles: Dame Cheryll Sotheran, Michelle Hippolite and Rhonda Paku. We inherit what they helped make, and we pass that on to the future.

A woman in a black tshirt with pink flowers and black trousers sitting on a stool. She is holding one of her ankles in front of her.
Courtney Johnston, Tumu Whakarae | Chief Executive. Photo by Robert Cross, 2020. Te Herenga Waka —Victoria University of Wellington

Do you have a stand-out memory?

If you have any memories of Te Papa, whether you’ve worked here or visited in person or online, we’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

A lot of people gathered in the forecourt of a large building. There are hay bales marking the path the people have to queue in.
Te Papa’s opening day, 1998. Photo by Norm Heke. Te Papa (146985)

1 Comment

  1. It is a pity Te Papa doesn’t have fern murals and native birds on the outside of the building with some sort of polyurethane or other covering to protect the art work from the elements, especially the sun. It is a pity that we have dull gray concrete blocks!

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