Wellington has long been regarded as the cultural capital of New Zealand (as well as being it’s actual capital), and offers a broad and interesting range of museums and galleries to escape to when one of the infamous southerlies hits the city. It’s hard to decide whether Auckland museums are better than those in Wellington, but for a city of around 400,000 people it has an impressive range. This is a reasonably comprehensive ranking of Wellington’s museums and public galleries, all of which are free other than Katherine Mansfield House and Nairn Street Cottage.
1. Te Papa
The obvious place to start, the national museum of New Zealand, and the largest in the country. It opened in 1998 in a controversial building, which has perhaps improved with age. It may not be that attractive but from the outside but it offers plenty of space for permanent and touring exhibitions, along with Toi Art, home to work from the national art collection.
2. Wellington Museum
Formerly the Museum of City & Sea, this excellent museum is housed in the beautiful 1892 Wellington Harbour Board Head Office and Bond Store historic building. The story of Wellington is comprehensively told over four floors, with a strong focus on maritime related history. My favourite part may be the The Attic, opened in 2015 to house some quite random items from the collection including a stuffed lion formerly of Wellington Zoo and costumes from the film What We Do In The Shadows.
3. New Zealand Portrait Gallery
Another gem on the waterfront, only a couple of hundred metres walk from Wellington Museum. Established in 1990, since 2010 it has been based in the turn of the 20th century era Shed 11 on Queen’s Wharf. Exhibitions rotate every few months, the biennial Adam Portraiture Award competition, New Zealand’s premier portrait prize, is a favourite of mine.
4. Dowse Art Museum
Reason enough to visit Lower Hutt (along with Petone Settlers Museum below). Opened in 1971, and completely remodelled in 2013, the museum focuses exclusively on New Zealand artists. Random fact, it is named after the Major of Hutt City from 1950 to 1970.
5. National Library of New Zealand
Established in 1965, it has a lot of books as expected, but also presents thoughtfully curated exhibitions, and in 2017 He Tohu was opened. This brings together three of the founding documents of New Zealand (Te Tiriti o Waitangi / The Treaty of Waitangi, He Whakaputanga (the Declaration of the Independence of the United Tribes of New Zealand), and the Women’s Suffrage Petition) in an absolutely stunning wooden womb like structure.
6. City Gallery Wellington
Housed in the former city library building (ironically the gallery survived the Kaikoura earthquake while the neighbouring replacement library was closed), the gallery opened in 1980 and moved to the current location in 1991. It doesn’t have a permanent collection but presents ever changing, and often quite challenging, exhibitions.
7. Petone Settlers Museum
Originally the Wellington Provincial Centennial Memorial, built to mark the Wellington province’s centennial commemorations, the bathing pavilion was turned into a museum 1977-9. It tells smartly and well the story of Wellington’s earliest days, and how life in the Hutt Valley has changed.
8. Pataka Art + Museum
An unexpected delight in Porirua, opened in 1998, it shows relatively small but interesting exhibitions, and has a great cafe and a lovely Japanese Garden.
9. Cable Car Museum
Opened in 2000 with an extension in 2006, this is located in the original winding house for the cable car that connects the city and Kelburn. I remember spending far longer than expected on my first visit watching a video about the many private car cables in Wellington, well suited to the terrain.
10. New Zealand Police Museum
Established in 1908, this is located on the campus of the Royal New Zealand Police College in Porirua, and offers a well presented history of the police force.
11. Nairn Street Cottage
Wellington’s oldest original cottage from 1858, saved as museum in 1980, is a rare surviving historic home in the city, with a fascinating history.
12. Katherine Mansfield House
A category 1 historic place, dating from 1888. Katherine Mansfield only lived there till the age of 5, and didn’t have kind words to describe the place. It does offer an interesting snapshot of life in Wellington at the turn of the 20th century, and information on the author.
13. The Great War Exhibition
Unfortunately no longer open, this excellent exhibition ran in the Dominion Museum Building from 2015 to 2018 to commemorate the Great War, and made a great companion to the Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War exhibition at Te Papa, both featuring the work of Weta Workshop.
Also closed at the time of writing this blog are the Corrections’ Heritage Centre and Reserve Bank Museum. I have yet to visit the Holocaust Centre of New Zealand as it was closed due to Covid and building maintenance for some time, and there are a few museums on the Kapiti Coast that I’ve yet to visit, including Kapiti Coast Museum, Southward Car Museum, Otaki Museum, and Wellington Tramway Museum. I have visited Paekakariki Station Museum, but longer ago than my memory can reliably recall.