The imposing Greco-Roman-style Auckland Museum sits at the highest point of the Auckland Domain, and contains the world’s finest collections of Maori and Pacific art and craft. Traditional in its approach yet contemporary in its execution, the museum was built as a World War I memorial in 1929 and has been progressively expanded, most recently in 2006 with the capping of a courtyard with an undulating copper dome. Below the dome, a striking slatted Fijian kauri structure hanging from the ceiling like some upturned beehive dominates the new Auckland Atrium entrance.
At the opposite end of the building, the original colonnaded Grand Foyer entrance is the place to head for the thirty-minute Maori Cultural Performance of frightening eye-rolling challenges, gentle songs and a downright scary haka, all heralded by a conch-blast that echoes through the building.
As traditional Maori villages started to disappear towards the end of the nineteenth century, some of the best examples of carved panels, meeting houses and food stores were rescued and brought here. The central Maori Court is dominated by Hotunui, a large and wonderfully carved meeting house built in 1878, late enough to have a corrugated-iron rather than rush roof. The craftsmanship is superb; the house’s exterior bristles with grotesque faces, lolling tongues and glistening paua-shell eyes, while the interior is lined with wonderful geometric tukutuku panels. Outside is the intricately carved prow and stern-piece of Te Toki a Tapiri, a 25m-long waka taua (war canoe) designed to seat a hundred warriors, the only surviving specimen from the pre-European era.
The transition from purely Polynesian motifs to an identifiably Maori style is exemplified by the fourteenth- or fifteenth-century Kaitaia Carving, a 2.5m-wide totara carving thought to have been designed for a ceremonial gateway, guarded by the central goblin-like figure with sweeping arms that stretch out to become lizard forms: Polynesian in style but Maori in concept.
The Pacific Masterpieces room is filled with exquisite Polynesian, Melanesian and Micronesian works. Look out for the shell-inlaid ceremonial food bowl from the Solomon Islands, ceremonial clubs and a wonderfully resonant slit-drum from Vanuatu. The textiles are fabulous too, with designs far more varied than you’d expect considering the limited raw materials: the Hawaiian red feather cloak is especially fine.
Daily life of Maori and the wider Pacific peoples is covered in the Pacific Lifeways room, which is dominated by a simple yet majestic breadfruit-wood statue from the Caroline Islands depicting Kave, Polynesia’s malevolent and highest-ranked female deity, whose menace is barely hinted at in this serene form.
The middle floor of the museum comprises the natural history galleries, an unusual combination of modern thematic displays and stuffed birds in cases. Displays such as the 3m-high giant moa (an ostrich-like bird) and an 800kg ammonite shouldn’t be missed, but there’s also material on dinosaurs, volcanoes and a Maori Natural History display, which attempts to explain the unique Maori perspective unencumbered by Western scientific thinking. The middle floor is also where you’ll find hands-on and “discovery” areas for kids.
Scars on the Heart occupies the entire upper floor and explores how New Zealanders’ involvement in war has helped shape national identity. The New Zealand Wars of the 1860s are interpreted from both Maori and Pakeha perspectives and World War I gets extensive coverage, particularly the Gallipoli campaign in Turkey, when botched leadership led to a massacre of ANZAC – Australian and New Zealand Army Corps – troops in the trenches. Powerful visuals and rousing martial music accompany newsreel footage of the Pacific campaigns of World War II and Vietnam, with personal accounts of the troops’ experiences and the responses of those back home.