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Creative and Connected: Auckland Museum's New Direction

It's not the museum you remember from childhood - meet some of the minds rewriting the rules with new interactive exhibits that will prove a hit these holidays.


When you think of a museum - certain words are likely to dominate your mind.

Cultural. Historic. Scientific. Quiet. Predictable.

It’s unlikely ‘creative’ was near the top of your list. But one of the cornerstones of Aotearoa’s GLAM sector is working on changing that.

There’s a new energy around Auckland Museum - and not just because it’s school holidays. The recent opening of new long-term exhibition spaces Tāmaki Herenga Waka: Stories of Auckland and Te Whiwhinga: The Imaginarium has brought with it a fresh approach from this cultural institution.

“There’s this buzz - there are a lot of kids everywhere. There’s excitement, everything comes to life and the noise levels go up as well which is a great thing. It’s blowing their minds and that’s what we want,” enthuses Dr Josie Galbraith, the Museum’s Project Curator for Natural Sciences.

That description alone will be paradigm-shifting to many generations of museum attendees - noise isn’t just allowed, it’s encouraged. 

These new spaces also do away with another rule any parent finds hard to police in such visual surroundings - no touching. Being able to get a hands-on experience is all part of the plan, hugely interactive digitally and physically.

Both Tāmaki Herenga Waka and Te Whiwhinga have been four years in the making, a rethinking driven around an engagement of the senses. 

Te Whiwhinga: The Imaginarium. Photo: Auckland Museum.

Galbraith explains “in our early discussions, we talked about the thinking routines developed by a researcher at Harvard with quick promoting questions like, ‘I think, I see, I wonder’  - it’s about getting kids to get into a mindset of looking and observing, then understanding that.”

Lizzie Wratislav is an Interpretive Planner at Auckland Museum - a role she describes as “an audience advocate.”  Like Galbraith’s, it’s a role helping the Museum’s shift towards the ‘wow’ factor. 

“I think there is still that preconception out there that museums can be these slightly dusty places but I think these two exhibition spaces show we’ve moved on from that,” Wratislav enthuses.

“What we’re trying to do is create amazing experiences and certainly creativity is part of that - providing an experience that people might not expect from us.

“Our audience is looking to have fun, maybe learn a few things along the way - but if someone’s coming away having a good time, that’s a win for us. They want experiences they can’t necessarily have at home. We spend a lot of time on our phones, our laptops and on screens - what are other ways you can learn things, get involved, enjoy yourself?”

Tāmaki Herenga Waka: Stories of Auckland. Photo: Auckland Museum.

Galbraith adds “We’re trying to make things more accessible - using all the tools we have in the toolbox to get kids engaged and generate that learning experience.

“Moving away from being lectured at, to a much more object-focused, explorative and self-guided learning is definitely a big shift. It means kids are able to explore what they’re interested in and from that touchpoint, hitting on all the main subject areas.”

Tāmaki Herenga Waka: Stories of Auckland. Photo: Auckland Museum.

Staged across four galleries, Tāmaki Herenga Waka - meaning the gathering of many waka - delves deeply into storytelling and narratives. Galbraith says “we’re looking at introducing familiar stories but perhaps a hidden aspect to them. We really want people to take away the multiple perspectives on some of these stories or aspects of Auckland they didn’t know about, even if they’ve lived here all their lives.” 

But it’s The Imaginarium that’s described as an entree to the rest of the Museum. Galbraith elaborates “that space is all about the feeling of manaaki and welcome, and making all of our kids feel comfortable when they come in, right from the start it’s been about fun and walking in there and feeling wowed.

Te Whiwhinga: The Imaginarium. Photo: Auckland Museum.

“One of the spaces in Te Whiwhinga is a 13 metre long wall full of lightboxes containing over 500 objects from all different aspects of our collection - from natural science through to human history.

“They’re stunning, they’re fun -  a little bit whimsical - unlocking that excitement and interest. It’s about introducing those kids to science and mātauranga Māori, giving them that foundation for their journey around the rest of the museum. 

“The key concept is everything in the world around you is connected and opening our eyes to see those connections so that our understanding of the world gets bigger as well. Whether that’s visual, auditory or tactile, it’s all a creative process.” 

Tāmaki Herenga Waka: Stories of Auckland. Photo: Auckland Museum.

What stands out about these new exhibits is they hold the visitors' attention, allowing them to jump as deep into the creative learning rabbit hole as they wish. What two minds take from the same object can be entirely different.

Experiencing the outbursts from new attendees never gets old for Wratislav. “It’s awesome to head out and see how the visitors are reacting. In Te Whiwhinga, we have an artwork called Haumanu - will you breathe for me? and it’s a little bit of a surprise when you step into that space. You don’t see it immediately but I love hearing people say ‘wow’ when they’re in there.”

Te Whiwhinga: The Imaginarium. Photo: Auckland Museum.

Galbraith laughs, “One that’s stuck with me is one little girl asking if we had any Mermaids, but she was interested enough to keep exploring those screens and in the end, she did like the porcupine fish.”

Mermaids notwithstanding, there’s a new place for unleashing your imagination these school holidays.

Te Whiwhinga: The Imaginarium. Photo: Auckland Museum.

Written in partnership with Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira


Written by

The Big Idea Editor

13 Jul 2021

The Big Idea Editor