Last year I went on Auckland Museum’s Incredible Rooftop Tour and was blown away by what we saw. Keen to see more, my friend Doreen and I went on the Secret Museum Tour which took us down into the depths of the museum where all the storage and restoration happens and have just taken the Hidden Heritage Tour that shows you all sorts of fascinating insights into the 100 year history of the museum.
Secret Museum Tour
This was described as a ‘once in a lifetime chance to explore the underground world where many of our treasures are stored’. All the tours were established after the first Covid lockdown as a way for the museum to make money when overseas visitors weren’t able to visit. Unfortunately we weren’t able to take any photos but we were taken many levels down into the basement levels to see where the vast number of items that aren’t on display are kept (many more than are on display). Some of these have been irreparably damaged (by sunlight through the big windows before they were covered over or by insects or humidity previously). Some things are being restored, others kept as reference or comparison specimens. I am so pleased that we were able to go on this fascinating tour as it is closing permanently at the end of June to allow for maintenance and restructuring of some of the areas.
Hidden Heritage Tour
Auckland Museum was first conceived in an architectural competition in 1922 and completed in 1929, with a major function as a War Memorial to soldiers who lost their lives in World War 1.
We start outside and are shown how the impressive facade is made out of Portland stone brought over from the UK. Because it was so expensive and heavy it was used only for the facade with the main part of the building being made from brick and concrete. We see where fossils are embedded in the massive stone columns (that were carved by hand), and some of the detail at the top of walls with carvings of soldiers made in the soft stone.
Inside the Grand Foyer is made of marble. When we are shown the detail of the decoration we see that it is a perfect blend of classical and NZ/Māori design that makes it unique. Just off the Grand Foyer are rooms that are made of industrial looking concrete with huge structural pillars. We learn that these were put in as part of the earthquake strengthening of the building and the decision was made to keep the new areas looking different from the old. Nothing was lost because these were originally designed as Palm Courts (that didn’t work and were closed after only 8 years). We also see how false floors have been laid over the original marble flooring to enable electricity and computer cabling to be installed to modernise the display areas.
The museum was originally built with large windows all around but these have now been all covered over as the natural light was destroying many of the exhibits. However the windows have been useful for bringing in some of the larger exhibits – particularly the elephant that was manoeuvred in through the window by crane after having been chopped off at the knees. Other large heavy exhibits such as a WW1 plane had to be brought in in pieces and manhandled into position.
Up on the second floor atrium area is the WW1 memorial where we learn that the 7500 names that are carved into the marble on the walls were hand carved at the equivalent of $5 per letter. We learn that the memorial shrine is made of Belgian blue marble and was originally all smooth and shiny but there are tiny fleck of metal throughout and originally the windows in the area were left open and Auckland’s humidity meant that the marble started to corrode leaving pock-marks all over the surface. The bronze wreath on top depicts native kawakawa leaves (for mourning) mixed with olive, poppy and rosemary (remembrance).
We walk through the Memorial Halls including WWII that were added later, admiring the detail in lights, wall decorations and beautiful stained glass.
Our last stop is the Library that is closed to public viewing. It is a beautiful space built in a curved part of the building, with long wooden bookshelves following the curves. They have laid out a whole table full of plans, articles and photographs of the full history of the museum – we could have spent hours looking through everything, old and new.
The windows from the library look down into the South Atrium which is the area that was renovated in the 2000s. The original open D-shaped courtyard was filled with a giant hanging wooden ‘bowl’ and covered with the beautiful waved copper dome roof. This whole new structure was not allowed to be anchored to the old structure. Today we can look down and see Peter the T-Rex skeleton that has pride of place in the atrium.