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North Island's Top Museums and Galleries

June 7, 2023

Enrich your understanding of Aotearoa (New Zealand)’s unique natural and cultural history with a visit to one of the country’s world-class museums. Forget everything you know about dusty artefacts in old-school glass cases, today’s exhibitions are full of interactive and immersive displays that take you on a profound journey of learning and discovery.

Enter with an open mind and leave mesmerised and inspired, as our stories encourage you to foster a connection with your own heritage and identity. Whether you’re a history buff, curious about Māori culture or simply seeking out new knowledge – here’s six of our favourite North Island museums and galleries to get you started.

Waitangi Treaty Grounds (Bay of Islands)

One of New Zealand’s most significant historic sites, Waitangi is often regarded as the spiritual home of Aotearoa. Wander through the grounds where the British Crown and over 500 Māori chiefs signed Te Tiriti o Waitangi in 1840 and you’ll learn about our foundational document, its varied interpretations and the contentious decades of unrest that ensued. The treaty’s living and evolving history continues to this day – read a replica of the original treaty and hear what it means to New Zealanders from all walks of life.

Opened in 2016, Te Kōngahu Museum of Waitangi is an award-winning museum that brings the Treaty of Waitangi to life, through a rich tapestry of informative stories, taonga(treasures), larger-than-life imagery and immersive technology. Told through a variety of perspectives, it challenges you to consider your own ties to the treaty and your own whenua (homeland), whether you’re a Kiwi or visiting from overseas.

Te Rau Aroha is a new contemporary exhibit that highlights the involvement and contribution of Maori soldiers in our military and war history, entitled the Price of Citizenship, Te Utu o Te Kiriraraunga. From the 28 (Māori) Battalion that served in World War II to the battles of the New Zealand Wars fought on our own shores, it’s a raw, honest and thought-provoking collection of galleries and pay tribute to the soldiers and their whānau(family).

Complete your cultural experience with a visit to Te Whare Rūnanga, Te Korowai ō Maikuku (home to one of New Zealand’s largest waka/war canoes), the Treaty House, the flagstaff and a live carving studio.

Te Kōngahu Museum of Waitangi

The Kauri Museum (Kaipara)

New Zealand’s largest and most iconic native tree, the Kauri, is a true gentle giant of the forest. Synonymous with the Northland story; generations of pioneers, foresters, gum diggers and farmers have had a connection with the Kauri, and this interactive museum in Matakohe tells these stories while looking to the future of this sacred yet endangered tree.

Embark on a voyage of discovery and experience hands-on displays, fossilised kauri that are tens of thousands of years old, and the world’s largest Kauri slab – at a whopping 22.5 metres long! Witness the legacy of the ancient forests in Northland to the local iwi (tribes) at this museum that not only preserves the past, but also plays a role in conservation of the remaining trees.

The Kauri Museum

Auckland Museum

Most international visitors begin their holiday in Auckland, the gateway to discovering the people and places of New Zealand. It’s a fitting museum to begin any journey of knowledge and learning, located in an iconic 1920’sbuilding in the picturesque Auckland Domain. Enjoy a scenic stroll amongst the tranquil gardens and then enter one of the top museums in the Southern Hemisphere. Well-regarded for its vast collection of Māori and Pacific treasures – including over 2,000 indigenous artefacts and the last great waka(traditional war canoe) carved from a giant totara tree, it’s an immersive way to gain a deeper understanding of New Zealand culture and heritage.

Waikato Museum / Te Whare Taonga a Waikato (Hamilton/Kirikiriroa)

The artistic and cultural heart of the Waikato region, this world-class museum and art gallery will inspire and challenge you across its 13different exhibits and galleries. From art, to history, to culture and science –the Waikato Museum is an engaging insight into the stories of the rohe (region). Time your visit with a floor talk from an artist or scientist, or sign up for a guided tour to ensure you don’t leave a stone unturned. Don’t miss the majestic 200-year-old waka Te Winikia, gifted to the museum by Māori royalty.

Waikato Museum / Te Whare Taonga a Waikato

Te Papa (Wellington)

Te Tapa Tongarewa, translating to container of treasures, is New Zealand’s national museum. Spend an hour or a day soaking up the knowledge across six stories of permanent and temporary exhibits, and it won’t take long to see why Lonely Planet rated Te Papa as one of their top 500 places on Earth.

Check out a diverse national art collection on display in Toi Art, a celebration of Aotearoa’s rare wildlife and natural environment in Te Taiao | Nature, and the thought-provoking Treaty of Waitangi: Signs of a Nation exhibition, an in-depth discovery of the relationship between tangata whenua (indigenous people of the land) and European settlers, from 1840to today.

A wide selection of guided tours are offered, each uniquely told by an expert kaimahi (guide). The daily Mana Māori tour is a particular highlight – arrive curious and eager to learn, as your host takes you on a journey of Māori culture and history, told through tales and taonga.

Te Papa

He Tohu (Wellington)

Housed in the National Library, in a room carved from native rimu wood, lies the original documents of the Treaty of Waitangi itself – nine pages of signatures from Māori chiefs and representatives of the British Crown. Presented alongside He Whakaputanga (the Declaration of Independence) and the1893 Women’s Suffrage Petition – two other founding documents that have shaped Aotearoa’s history – it’s an opportunity to read, reflect, and forge your own connection with New Zealand’s past and present.

Located opposite the Beehive, New Zealand’s Government Buildings, the nine pages of Te Tiriti o Waitangi are faced towards the doors of parliament, in a state of constant challenge. It serves as a profound reminder of the role the treaty plays in today’s society, and the mana (power and prestige) of the agreement.

He Tohu. Credit: WellingtonNZ

From the historical and natural wonders of Northland at the top of the North Island, to the stories waiting to be discovered in the capital city of Wellington, be sure to add a museum visit (or many) to your itinerary for an eye-opening experience that will stay with you, long after you’ve returned home.