dominion museum building

The National Art Gallery and Dominion Museum building in 2001.
Credit: Photograph by Andy Palmer, acpalmer photography

The impressive stripped classical National Art Gallery and Dominion Museum building, behind the National War Memorial, was once the home of some of New Zealand’s most treasured artefacts.

During the centenary of the First World War it houses the Great War Exhibition.

New Zealand’s first national museum

Soon after the capital was moved from Auckland to Wellington in 1865, the Colonial Museum was established under the auspices of scientist and explorer James Hector. Originally housed behind Parliament, the museum started with a small collection made by the country’s first scientific society. After New Zealand became a dominion in 1907, the museum became known as the Dominion Museum.

Hector and his successor, Augustus Hamilton, both grew the collection, and lack of space soon became an issue. In 1913 the government agreed to the establishment of an expanded museum, art gallery, and a scientific, art and historical library within or adjoining the museum. However, the First World War halted these plans.

Preparations for the new museum

It wasn’t until 1929 that the idea was again raised. The National Art Gallery and Dominion Museum Act 1930 was then passed, allowing for the establishment ‘in the City of Wellington of a National Art Gallery, a Dominion Museum, and a War Memorial Carillon and Hall of Memories.’ The chosen site for these buildings was the Alexandra Barracks at Mount Cook (Pukeahu).

A national architectural competition was held to find a suitably impressive design for these important public buildings. The competition was won by the noted Auckland architectural firm of Gummer and Ford. In 1930 the barracks were demolished.

dominion museum under construction in 1934

The National Art Gallery and Dominion Museum under construction in 1934.

Credit: Alexander Turnbull Library. Reference: 1/1-023103-G, Photograph by Sydney Charles Smith. Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand, Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa, must be obtained before any re-use of this image.

Building begins

The first structure to be built was the National War Memorial Carillon, which was dedicated on Anzac Day, 25 April 1932 (the Hall of Memories was completed in 1964).

In 1933 Fletcher Construction began laying the foundations for the new museum building. The National Art Gallery and the Gallery of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts were to occupy the first floor, with the ground floor housing the museum collections.

Opening of the building

The National Art Gallery and Dominion Museum was opened by Governor-General Viscount Galway in August 1936. Nearly 10,000 people visited on the opening weekend.

The local Evening Post newspaper reported ‘The interest taken in the opening showed that the Art Gallery and Museum are not merely a gesture as a national memorial, but to the people for whom they were erected they supply a real need, the lack of which is perhaps only being appreciated now that the building is in use.’

The original plans for the Buckle Street building were never actually completed and by the 1980s storage had reached capacity. In 1994 construction began on a new building located on Wellington‘s waterfront.

inside the māori hall at the dominion museum

The Māori Hall in the Dominion Museum, showing waka (canoes), pātaka (storehouses) and other items.

Credit: Alexander Turnbull Library. Reference: 1/1-003855-G. Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand, Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa, must be obtained before any re-use of this image.

The National Art Gallery

While the Dominion Museum (later called the National Museum) and National Art Gallery had shared a building since 1936, the two remained separate entities until the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa Act 1992 incorporated the two.

The journey towards a National Art Gallery started in 1882, with the establishment of the Fine Arts Society of New Zealand. This organisation evolved into the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts in 1889. The academy managed a national art collection acquired, in part, with government funding.

The academy was a prime mover in the foundation of a National Art Gallery and, after the passing of the 1930 act, the academy sold its own gallery and devoted the proceeds of the sale, its art collection and its building fund to the National Art Gallery in return for offices and galleries in perpetuity in the new building. The national collection also included art works from the Dominion Museum and other collections gifted to the nation.

During the Second World War the Defence Department took over the National Art Gallery and gallery spaces. The bulk of the art collection was sent to Hastings for safe keeping, and a temporary gallery was set up in the former tearooms of the DIC department store.

Up until 1967 the academy collected paintings and presented them to the National Art Gallery, though these were mainly works by British artists. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the National Art Gallery started to build up a truly national art collection, with a wide range of New Zealand artists.

hanging pictures at the national art gallery

Hanging pictures at the National Art Gallery in preparation for the Centennial Art Exhibition of paintings which opened in Novemeber 1939.

Credit: Alexander Turnbull Library, Evening Post Collection. Reference: PAColl-6301-46. Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand, Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa, must be obtained before any re-use of this image.

After Te Papa

The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (Te Papa), which incorporated the art gallery and museum, moved out of Buckle Street in 1996. Their new waterfront home opened on 14 February 1998.

The establishment of Te Papa meant that the Academy of Fine Arts needed to find a new home. After receiving compensation for the breaking of the deed of in perpetuity, the academy moved to a site on Queens Wharf, which opened in February 2000.

In 1997 the Wellington Tenths Trust (a Māori land trust) purchased the Dominion Museum building from the Crown. In 1999 they formed a partnership with Massey University and restored the building, which is currently shared by the university and the Great War Exhibition.

Further information


Updated on 23rd July 2015