5 Things to See at the Te Papa Tongarewa Museum

Country 2: New Zealand |This post is part of my 30×30 series. Read more here!

In 2005 New Zealand was top of mind for one very small reason—a reason no bigger than a ring. Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy had wrapped just a few years before, and fellows of the ring were flocking to Hobbiton, the movie’s Shire set, to pay pilgrimage. We were not.

The twelve of us—two musicians, nine dancers, and one kumu (teacher of Polynesian dance) were there to dance ori Tahiti, or Tahitian dance, in a conference of Pacific studies. Culture Moves! a showcase of “dance in Oceania from hiva to hip hop”, was hosted by the Te Papa Tongarewa—the renown national museum of New Zealand.

The event opened with a pōhiri, or opening ceremony, which was held at Rongomaraeroa—Te Papa’s spectacular marae, or spiritual place. While during the day we were in rehearsals in the hostel common room, in the evenings, we’d come together in the amphitheater and watch the performances, which ranged from traditional chants in Māori to contemporary dance choreographies set to modern songs. Our costumes, made of red moré (a thick, dried grass similar to raffia), mother of pearl, and feathers, stood in contrast to psychedelic poi balls and baggy breakdance cargo pants. The beauty of it? It was all Polynesian dance.

Between events, we’d slip through the exhibits, entranced by the sheer scale and realness of them. To be honest, I typically skip the Oceanic Art sections in museums. I regularly find the exhibits dry and boring—collections of masks, pottery shards, and the odd outrigger with no real sense of context. The Te Papa is different. It brings Oceanic and Māori history to life through recreations, installations, and interactive exhibits that span art, history, taonga Māori (treasure and artifacts of the Māori people), Pacific cultures, and natural history.

Well, it’s obviously been a while, but luckily my favorite pieces are in the Te Papa’s permanent collection. When you visit, make sure not to miss these!

5 Things to See at the Te Papa Tongarewa Museum

  1. Te Marae, the ornately designed sacred community space within the museum
  2. Quake Braker, an exhibit that shows the innovative preventative measures taken to safeguard the museum, which sits on a fault line, from earthquakes.
  3. Mana Whenua, an interactive exhibit that explores Māori culture, taonga (treasures), and history—from waka (canoes) to ware (buildings), and everything in between
  4. Pounamu, or greenstone, is sacred to the Māori. Within the Taonga Māori collection, you can see pounamu both in raw form and the used as jewelry, weaponry, tools, and more.
  5. Bush City, an outdoor walk that showcases indigenous rock, flora, and volcanic stone.