Otago Museum

419 Great King Street And Cumberland Street North, Dunedin

  • Entrance way of the first Otago Museum, opened in 1877.
    Copyright: NZ Historic Places Trust. Taken By: Jonathan Howard. Date: 21/12/2009.
  • The Museum on Great King Street from the Hocken Wing, to the Ross building, to the Fels Wing.
    Copyright: NZ Historic Places Trust. Taken By: Susan Irvine. Date: 22/01/2010.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 1 Public Access Able to Visit
List Number 2203 Date Entered 15th December 2011 Date of Effect 15th December 2011


Extent of List Entry

Extent includes the land described as Lot 2 DP 332520 (RT 133161), Otago Land District, and the buildings known as Otago Museum and its fittings and fixtures. (Refer to map in Appendix 1 of the registration report for further information). The registration includes the original fencing. The registration includes the following chattel: The 17 metre long Fin Whale skeleton.

City/District Council

Dunedin City


Otago Region

Legal description

Lot 2 DP 332520 (RT 133161), Otago Land District


Established in 1868, the imposing Otago Museum is located beside a tree lined reserve adjacent to the University of Otago in Dunedin, and weaves together a tapestry of people and structures; university academics and members of the public; collectors and collections; and historical and contemporary themes.

James Hector’s (1834-1907) arrival in New Zealand in 1861 as Otago’s Provincial Geologist marked the beginning of the rock and minerals collection that would become the nucleus of what would later be the Otago Museum. Displayed as the Otago Museum collection for the first time in 1865 at the New Zealand Industrial Exhibition in Dunedin, it was not until 1868 that a site was found and the collection opened to the public. With the appointment of Frederick Wollaston Hutton as first official curator, priorities focused on securing larger, purpose-built accommodation. Eventually in October 1874, the Museum Council secured a site on a reserve for public recreation between Great King Street, Albany Street and Cumberland Street, close to the University of Otago.

David Ross, one of Dunedin’s most important architects, designed the new premises. Only the central portion of his design was constructed. Construction began late in 1874 and on 11 August 1877 the Otago Museum was opened to the public. Classical Greek in style, it was constructed in concrete, with a basement and three floors. Sweeping steps lead up to a porch with imposing double Doric columns on each side. Through the tiled foyer and into the sizeable central hall, the visitor was met with the imposing sight of two mezzanine floors and a central atrium looking up to large skylights and rows of lunettes. This atrium became even more imposing in 1884 when a 17 metre fin whale skeleton was suspended in midair from iron girders.

In 1907, Dr Thomas Morland Hocken gifted to the people of New Zealand his remarkable collection of manuscripts, maps, paintings, photographs, newspapers, books and pamphlets relating to New Zealand and the Pacific, and the Otago Museum became the repository for the significant collection. To house the collection, the Hocken Wing was added to the north of Ross’ building. Designed by John Burnside, the basement and two-storied Hocken Wing was designed ‘in accordance’ with Ross’ original design. The ground floor provided necessary general exhibition space, and the second floor housed the Hocken Library. In 1930 the Willi Fels Wing was opened to the south of Ross’ building. Named for the influential businessman and generous benefactor, the Fels Wing was designed by noted architect Edmund Anscombe, with the added attentions of Dunedin architectural partnership Miller & White. It was an architectural contrast to the main buildings with its minimal ornamentations. The Fels Wing consisted of a basement and two floors, each containing large halls. In the 1950s Ross’ central atrium was in-filled to create more exhibition space. In 1963 the Centennial Wing, probably designed by James White, was opened, significant particularly for the H.D. Skinner Hall of Polynesia, named after its noteworthy curator Henry Devenish Skinner. During the 1990s, two more redevelopment stages saw a striking entrance way and atrium added, designed by Ted McCoy, along with work spaces, café, shop, conference venue and impressive stairway.

The Otago Museum is significant on many levels. Situated on a reserve with expansive lawns and aged trees; the historical weaving seamlessly with the contemporary; the Museum’s aesthetic appeal is superior. It is a major public building with components designed by some of the most important architects to have worked in Dunedin: Ross, Burnside, Anscombe, Miller & White, and Ted McCoy are all the crucial to the annals of this country’s architectural story. The three earliest buildings are dignified and impressive, ably demonstrating the trends of early architecture in Dunedin. Interior spaces make a similar significant contribution.

The preservation of the Animal Attic and Skinner galleries are important examples of historical display techniques, representing contemporary New Zealand and international cultural values. Added cultural significance comes from the Museum’s role as the first home of the Hocken Library. Socially, the Museum provides not only an exceptional educational opportunity but a community centre and meeting place. The stories of individuals who are connected with the Museum are no less significant in the annals of New Zealand’s history. James Hector, Frederick Hutton, Professor Thomas Jeffery Parker, Professor William Benham, Henry Skinner, Dr Raymond Forster, Willi Fels and Dr Thomas Hocken, to name just a few, are all preeminent in their chosen field and also in the Museum’s evolution.

While the Otago Museum has evolved spatially and philosophically over the course of 140 years, it has retained those aspects of its story which best speak to the historic, aesthetic, and cultural tapestry which significantly enriches our society.

Assessment criteriaopen/close

Historical Significance or Value

The Otago Museum is historically significant. It is Otago’s first museum and is representative of Dunedin’s growth as a city following the boom years of the gold rush. The Museum’s collections preserved and made accessible the area’s history. Significant nationally, the Otago Museum was second only to the Colonial Museum in Wellington in providing a purpose-built facility for its collections. Significant, also, for over half a century as the guardian of Hocken’s collections documenting early New Zealand; both Maori and Pakeha histories. The continued survival of a building, constructed between 1874 and 1877, evolving spatially and philosophically over the course of 120 years, cements its importance in the history of both Dunedin’s public institutions and the development of museums.

Aesthetic Significance or Value:

The Otago Museum has special aesthetic appeal. It is a major public building designed by some of the most important architects to have worked in Dunedin, indeed New Zealand. It faces prominently on to Great King Street and takes up a large portion of the block. Decorative iron railings and various plantings soften the concrete exterior on the street frontage. The Museum Reserve, with its expansive lawns and trees over one hundred years of age, frames the Museum in appealingly aesthetic surroundings. The new entrance way provides significant visual impact and is also aesthetically appealing in a modernist framework. Contemporary additions face south, while the older portions face west. In this way, the historic aesthetic appeal is not compromised by modern additions.

Architectural Significance or Value:

The Otago Museum has special architectural significance. The original central portion was designed by architect David Ross. The Ross portion that was built is dignified and impressive. It has been called Ross’s most ‘conspicuous building’. Ross was a significant architect in Otago in the nineteenth century, designing a number of important and architecturally unique buildings. The Museum represents Ross’ influence in the early architecture of Otago, particularly Dunedin. It demonstrates the trends of early architecture in Dunedin; architecture for which Dunedin is famous. It also educates the public about Dunedin’s Victorian architectural past. Animal Attic, in particular, is one of New Zealand’s finest examples of timbered Victorian architecture.

While the two wings are in a style different to the central portion, they hold their own significant architectural value. John Arthur Burnside, designer of the Hocken Wing, was a well-known architect whose designs included many important Dunedin buildings. His reputation surpassed Dunedin boundaries and his buildings can be seen further afield, including the Auckland Stock Exchange building.

Edmund Anscombe, original designer of the Fels Wing, was well known in the architectural community for his prolific designs. In Dunedin he gained several commissions for several major buildings. Widely-travelled, assertive and forward-looking, Anscombe was significant for introducing new international trends in architecture to New Zealand.

Miller & White, designers of the 1963 Centennial Wing, were also a prominent Dunedin architectural firm, counting the University of Otago among its clients. McCoy & Wixon, designers of the 1990s renovations, are also prominent architects. Based in Dunedin, their work is seen nationwide and incorporates commercial, retail and institutional work. The practice has received numerous design awards.

The Museum is an outstanding example of the combined design skills of some of New Zealand’s most prominent architects over a period of some 120 years.

Scientific Significance or Value:

The Otago Museum is of scientific significance. The Museum is an important location for the development of scientific thought and its personnel have been important participants in various scientific disciplines. In addition the displays represent changes in scientific thinking and the history of science. Two galleries in particular are of special scientific value. The Animal Attic remains intact and largely unchanged. It perfectly represents the Victorian’s evolutionary views and contemporary museum philosophies. Similarly, the H.D. Skinner Hall illustrates methods of display techniques current in 1960s museum science.

Cultural Significance or Value:

As one of the few cultural institutions of its type to survive on its nineteenth century site, the Otago Museum is of special significance. The Museum ably fulfils a museum’s role in exhibiting collections within which the history and attitudes of society are represented. Beyond the importance of the collections, however, the Museum makes a rare and outstanding contribution in its preservation of gallery spaces as they were at the time of creation. Animal Attic, for example, provides an important example of nineteenth century ethnological layout, representing contemporary New Zealand and international cultural values. Similarly the H.D. Skinner Hall provides a microcosm of the modern method of display techniques in the 1960s. Additional cultural significance may be found in the Museum’s role as the first home of the Hocken Library. Second only to the Alexander Turnbull Library, this nationally significant collection was housed in the Museum until 1965. Hocken’s original collection of artefacts remains housed there.

Social Significance or Value:

The Otago Museum of special social significance. It was an institution for the ‘enjoyment and the elevation’ of the public. As an educational opportunity to the masses it was unparalleled. The building provided a community centre and meeting place. Fervent debate over Sunday-opening during 1877 to 1878 reflected the importance the public at large placed on the institution and ensuring access to all. Without Sunday opening, the Museum was little more than the preserve of the leisured classes. Public pressure ensured the Museum remained accessible to the working classes.

Societal changes were mirrored by changes in Museum displays and services. The evolution of the Museum, therefore, provides an insight into our changing society over a long period of use.

(a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspects of New Zealand history:

The Otago Museum reflects several aspects of New Zealand history. A Museum represents a city’s coming of age. Dunedin had been transformed by the gold rush and became an urban centre. The Museum was an example of the founding fathers investment in education, religion and public works. The addition of the Hocken Wing in 1910 saw the Museum become the guardian of one of the most important collections of New Zealand history and culture. The substantial Fels Wing, and later the Centennial Wing and 1990s additions, reinforced the Museum’s position as one of the most important historical institutions in New Zealand.

(b) The association of the place with events, persons, or ideas of importance in New Zealand history:

The Otago Museum has a long association with persons of note locally, nationally and internationally. Several important founding fathers, including James Macandrew, Sir Julius Vogel and Captain Cargill, were involved with the establishment of the Museum. The founder of the Museum’s collections, Sir James Hector, went on to dominate the Colony’s scientific institutions and museums. His successor Frederick Hutton made outstanding contributions to the advancement of biology and zoology in New Zealand. William Benham was a zoologist of world renowned; Henry Skinner had a profound influence on the development of anthropology and ethnology in New Zealand; Raymond Foster gained an international reputation for his research into spiders.

A wealth of important local figures were benefactors of the Museum. The most significant among these are Dr Thomas Hocken and Willi Fels. Both gentlemen made outstanding additions to the buildings and collections of the Museum. Hocken, in particular, gifted a collection of unique importance to New Zealand history.

The architects who each contributed to the imposing building which houses the Museum are among the most significant names in architecture, both locally and nationally. David Ross was one of Dunedin’s most important colonial architects, designing locally and nationally; John Burnside designed many of Dunedin’s most important buildings; Edmund Anscombe is among one of the most important figures in New Zealand’s architectural history; and Ted McCoy is a leading local architect whose legacy is represented by a number of Dunedin’s most recent significant buildings.

(d) The importance of the place to the tangata whenua:

The Fels gallery now houses the Tangata Whenua exhibition. The gallery was designed with the help and guidance of representatives of Ngai Tahu to create a gallery which tells the stories of the makers and users of the artefacts on display with its impressive displays of Maori cultural artefacts, including the gateway from Mapoutahi Pa, Pataka Whakairo and Waka Te Paranihi.

(e) The community association with, or public esteem for the place:

The Dunedin community has a strong sense of pride and ownership in the Otago Museum. This sense of ownership was obvious from the start. The debate over Sunday opening, which enabled the working classes access to the Museum, indicated the importance placed on the educational and social experience. These experiences are still highly valued by the community.

(f) The potential of the place for public education:

The essential focus of this place is public education. The Museum uses its spaces, from 1877 to 200, to provide outstanding levels of public education which benefit children and serious researchers alike. The Museum’s collections provide a wealth of knowledge concerning New Zealand history. Indeed the buildings themselves represent the evolution of architectural styles and the accepted modes for public institutions over 120 years. From ornamental Classical Greek architecture to the modernist school of contemporary design, the buildings themselves provide an important architectural exhibition.

(g) The technical accomplishment or value, or design of the place:

Ross’ 1877 building was constructed in concrete. Ross was a pioneer in the use of concrete and the Museum is among the first Dunedin public intuitions erected in this material. The design of the Museum is relatively rare in that it represents an evolution of architectural styles, rather than one homogenous building representing the views of only one architect. The structure represents the best of a number of architects’ designs, which in turn represent the best of the period. Interestingly, the designs also reflect each architect’s attempts to work with another’s architect’s existing design and yet represent their own contemporary architecture.

(h) The symbolic or commemorative value of the place:

The Hocken Wing commemorates Dr Hocken, his inspired passion for collecting New Zealand’s history and the gifting of that immense collection to the people of New Zealand. Although much of the collection has been removed, the building stands as a memorial to the man and his outstanding collection.

Similarly, the Fels Wing honours the outstanding personal and financial gifts of Willi Fels. He not only contributed money and collections to the Museum, but invested much of his personal time and energies into the running of the Museum.

The Memorial Wing was proposed to commemorate the centennial of the founding of Dunedin in 1948. Although it was not opened until March 1963, it stands as a monument to Otago’s founding fathers and the progress of the fledgling settlement into a robust and mature city.

(j) The importance of identifying rare types of historic places:

An outstanding accomplishment, which has become more exceptional through the advance of the years, is the Animal Attic Gallery. Its status is rare. This Gallery has remained almost unmodified from its original 1877 condition. Only the central well has been filled in, creating a separate floor rather than a mezzanine gallery. In 2010 Animal Attic now represents one of the few genuine Victorian galleries remaining in existence internationally. It is a remarkable time capsule which encapsulates nineteenth century aesthetics, architecture and display techniques. Of rarity value also is the articulated complete skeleton of a fin whale. Suspended from iron girders since 1884, it still hangs from a place of prominence as Museum alterations were designed to accommodate the icon. Few of these fin whales are to be found exhibited internationally.

(k) The extent to which the place forms part of a wider historical and cultural complex or historical and cultural landscape:

The Museum is historically part of a cultural landscape. Debate over the site for the Museum in 1874, indicated that it was important to the founding fathers that it be placed close to the University. The desire was to promote education generally by the physical proximity of a mutually useful relationship. Indeed from 1877 to 1955, the Museum was administered by the University and was officially known as the Otago University Museum. Similarly, Museum Directors not only administered the running of the institution but occupied prominent teaching positions at the University. Hutton became the Professor of Natural Sciences; Benham held the Chair in Biology; and Skinner was the first lecturer in Australasia to teach anthropology. The addition of the Hocken further cemented this cultural landscape. The Deed of Trust placed the control of the collection in the hands of the University but its physical presence was at the Museum.

Less connected administratively to the University in recent decades, the Museum is now part of Dunedin’s wider cultural landscape including the Otago Settlers Museum and the Dunedin Public Art Gallery.

Summary of Significance or Values:

This place was assessed against, and found it to qualify under the following criteria: a, b, d, e, f, g, h, j and k.


It is considered that this place qualifies as a Category I historic place.

The Otago Museum makes a very special contribution, aesthetically, educationally, culturally and historically. Its collections enrich the community by enhancing our understanding of the world. It is also an expression of our own unique cultural and historical identity. From its foundation in 1868, the Museum has operated in a spirit of enlightenment providing an equality of opportunity in learning. Not only the collections, but the spaces within which they live also contribute to that opportunity. The buildings speak a special language which is aesthetic, architectural, historical and commemorative. The stories they tell of outstanding scientists, remarkable benefactors, and important architects are just as significant. Yet more extraordinary is the manner in which these stories intertwine and interact over a period of some 130 years. Contemporary yet historical; modern yet Victorian; the Otago Museum is an outstanding place of enlightenment and beauty, inside and out.


Construction Professionalsopen/close

Anscombe, Edmund

Anscombe (1874-1948) was born in Sussex and came to New Zealand as a child. He began work as a builder's apprentice in Dunedin and in 1901 went to America to study architecture. He returned to Dunedin in 1907 and designed the School of Mines building for the University of Otago. The success of this design gained him the position of architect to the University. Five of the main University buildings were designed by Anscombe, as well as Otago Girls' High School and several of Dunedin's finest commercial buildings including the Lindo Ferguson Building (1927) and the Haynes building.

Anscombe moved to Wellington about 1928 and was known for his work as the designer of the Centennial Exhibition (1939-1940). Anscombe had travelled extensively and had visited major exhibitions in Australia, Germany and America. The practice of Edmund Anscombe and Associates, Architects, had offices in the Dunedin, Wellington and Hawkes Bay districts, and Anscombe's buildings include the Vocational Centre for Disabled Servicemen, Wellington (1943), Sargent Art Gallery, Wanganui, and several blocks of flats including Anscombe Flats, 212 Oriental Parade (1937) and Franconia, 136 The Terrace (1938), both in Wellington. As well as being interested in the housing problem, Anscombe held strong views concerning the industrial advancement of New Zealand.

(See also http://www.dnzb.govt.nz/dnzb/ )

Burnside, John Arthur

Burnside (1856-1920) was born in Dunedin and is believed to be one of the first professional architects who were born and trained in New Zealand.

He was articled to the architectural firm of Mason and Wales, remaining with them for two or three years. During this time he won important prizes for designs which he exhibited at international exhibitions.

In 1880 he established his own practice at Dunedin. His buildings include Transit House (1880s), Philips Hotel (now Gresham Hotel, 1882) and the Otago Early Settlers' Museum (1908).

Fletcher Construction Company

Fletcher Construction Company was founded by Scottish-born James Fletcher (1886 - 1974), the son of a builder. Six months after his arrival in Dunedin in 1908, Fletcher formed a house-building partnership with Bert Morris. They soon moved into larger-scale construction work, building the St Kilda Town Hall (1911), and the main dormitory block and Ross Chapel at Knox College (1912). Fletcher's brothers, William, Andrew and John joined the business in 1911, which then became known as Fletcher Brothers. A branch was opened in Invercargill.

While holidaying in Auckland in 1916, James tendered for the construction of the the Auckland City Markets. By 1919 the company, then known as Fletcher Construction, was firmly established in Auckland and Wellington. Notable landmarks constructed by the company during the Depression included the Auckland University College Arts Building (completed 1926); Landmark House (the former Auckland Electric Power Board Building, 1927); Auckland Civic Theatre (1929); the Chateau Tongariro (1929); and the Dominion Museum, Wellington (1934).

Prior to the election of the first Labour Government, Fletcher (a Reform supporter) had advised the Labour Party on housing policy as hbe believed in large-scale planning and in the inter-dependence of government and business. However, he declined an approach by Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage in December 1935 to sell the company to the government, when the latter wanted to ensure the large-scale production of rental state housing. Although Fletchers ultimately went on to build many of New Zealand's state houses, for several years Residential Construction Ltd (the subsidiary established to undertake their construction) sustained heavy financial losses.

Fletcher Construction became a public company, Fletcher Holdings, in 1940. Already Fletchers' interests were wide ranging: brickyards, engineering shops, joinery factories, marble quarries, structural steel plants and other enterprises had been added the original construction firm. Further expansion could only be undertaken with outside capital.

During the Second World War James Fletcher, having retired as chairman of Fletcher Holdings, was seconded to the newly created position of Commissioner of State Construction which he held during 1942 and 1943. Directly responsible to Prime Minister Peter Fraser, Fletcher had almost complete control over the deployment of workers and resources. He also became the Commissioner of the Ministry of Works, set up in 1943, a position he held until December 1945.

In 1981 Fletcher Holdings; Tasman Pulp and Paper; and Challenge Corporation amalgamated to form Fletcher Challenge Ltd, at that time New Zealand's largest company.

Williamson Construction Company - main contract

Ross, David

David Ross (1827-1908) was one of a significant number of architects who came to New Zealand from Australia in the early 1860s prompted by the news of the Otago gold rushes. Born in Scotland, Ross worked in Victoria in the late 1850s before settling in Dunedin in c.1862, whereupon he entered into a brief partnership with William Mason (1810-97). After establishing his own practice, Ross designed the Congregational Church (1863-64), Dunedin's oldest ecclesiastical building, Fernhill house (1867) which is now home to the Dunedin Club, and the central wing of the Otago Museum (1876-77).

In the mid-1860s Ross worked briefly in Hokitika (1866) before returning to Dunedin and in 1870 he applied for a patent for the frames and apparatus required for the construction of works in concrete. This application lapsed but it is nevertheless significant as it places Ross at the forefront of the development of mass concrete construction in this country. In addition to his professional responsibilities David Ross was also a member of the first Dunedin City Council (1865-66) and in 1876 he became the first president of the joint Institute of Engineers and Architects in Otago. Ross may have returned to Australia in the early 1890s and it would appear that he spent the rest of his life living in the United States and Japan.

Ross, David

David Ross (1827-1908) was one of a significant number of architects who came to New Zealand from Australia in the early 1860s prompted by the news of the Otago gold rushes. Born in Scotland, Ross worked in Victoria in the late 1850s before settling in Dunedin in c.1862, whereupon he entered into a brief partnership with William Mason (1810-97). After establishing his own practice, Ross designed the Congregational Church (1863-64), Dunedin's oldest ecclesiastical building, Fernhill house (1867) which is now home to the Dunedin Club, and the central wing of the Otago Museum (1876-77).

In the mid-1860s Ross worked briefly in Hokitika (1866) before returning to Dunedin and in 1870 he applied for a patent for the frames and apparatus required for the construction of works in concrete. This application lapsed but it is nevertheless significant as it places Ross at the forefront of the development of mass concrete construction in this country. In addition to his professional responsibilities David Ross was also a member of the first Dunedin City Council (1865-66) and in 1876 he became the first president of the joint Institute of Engineers and Architects in Otago. Ross may have returned to Australia in the early 1890s and it would appear that he spent the rest of his life living in the United States and Japan.

White, James Hodge

J H White (1896-1970) was born in Dunedin and educated in Tasmania but returned to Dunedin to undertake his early training with a local architectural firm. Having served overseas during World War One, White was awarded a British Army Scholarship and subsequently attended the London School of Architecture for three years. He graduated with honours, winning the gold medal of the International Victory Scholarship (1921). Following his return to New Zealand White undertook a study tour of the United States with fellow architect Horace Massey before settling in Dunedin, where he entered into a brief partnership with Leslie Coombes (1925-6). Coombes & White won the national competition for the design of the Southland War Memorial which was erected in Invercargill, but soon afterwards the partnership was dissolved and in 1927 White joined forces with another Dunedin architect, Eric Miller (1896-1948).

Miller & White became architects to the University of Otago, won the national design competition for the Auckland Residential Methodist College and also designed the Regent Theatre, Dunedin, the Willi Fels Wing of the Otago Museum (c.1929), and numerous other commercial, ecclesiastical and residential buildings in Dunedin. James White was the principal designer of the firm and it was in this capacity that he designed the St John Ambulance building in York Place and the New Zealand Road Services Passenger Station in Rattray Street (1939) which is also in the Art Deco style. After Eric Miller's death White entered partnership with Ian Dunn, who had been with the practice since 1933. The firm then became known as Miller, White & Dunn. This practice won the national competition for the design of the Canterbury Museum extensions in 1951. James White retired five years before his death in 1970 and today the firm is continued by his son Geoffrey in partnership with Rodney Dalziel.

McCoy, E.J.

E McCoy is a major modern Dunedin architect and has designed the University Hocken Building and many other notable modern buildings in Dunedin

Miller and White

Eric Miller trained in London on a scholarship, along with James White whom he had known as a child when living in Dunedin. Returning to Dunedin about 1925, he was associated with the New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition at Logan Park where he worked with Edmund Anscombe, a distant relative. He and Jim White formed a partnership in 1927 and took over Anscombe's office when the latter moved to Wellington. Miller and then White followed Anscombe as the University architect. They designed the Willi Fels wing of the Otago Museum (1929), the Otakou Maori church and hall (1941) and the Hercus block of the Medical School (1948), all of which tend to be associated with Miller's name, rather than White's. Miller also won a competition for the Oamaru war memorial (1926).

Uren, E.W.

No biography is currently available for this construction professional

McCoy & Wixon

No biography is currently available for this construction professional

Additional informationopen/close

Historical Narrative

Origins of the Otago Museum:

The museum has its origins in the work of Scottish-born geologist James Hector. In 1861 Hector was appointed director of the Geological Survey of Otago by the Otago Provincial Government. His arrival marked the beginning of a lengthy career in which he dominated the Colony's scientific institutions. Hector was asked to bring a set of mineral specimens that could be displayed in a museum, to which Otago’s examples could be added.

At the 1865 New Zealand Industrial Exhibition in Dunedin, the collection of five thousand rocks and minerals was displayed for the first time. Also for the first time, the collection was referred to as that of the Otago Museum. The exhibit was a success and a steering committee was formed to look into the establishment of a natural history museum. Time passed with little achieved. This was made poetically evident by one newspaper reporter:

‘...at the Exhibition of 1865, Otago’s exhibits of objects of Natural History took a prominent place; how there was great talk of what would be done with them when the Exhibition closed; how plans were suggested, and how in conversation and on paper a formidable rival to the British Museum was formed. And who does not know the result? Who does not know that when the Exhibition closed, our collection was bundled pell-mell into that noble building the Otago Rag and Bone Store? For months and months our precious exhibits lay there neglected. We can well remember how we used to fancy that the melancholy, and rather seedy looking penguin,…which looked as if it had mounted guard over the ruins of the collection, seemed to reproach passers by for the neglect of his duties as a citizen and a colonist.

On 1 July 1868 the first meeting of the Otago Museum Committee was held. The chairman was James Macandrew, Provincial Superintendent, and the committee included Sir Julius Vogel, Provincial Secretary and Treasurer.

Dunedin was transforming from a fledgling Presbyterian settlement, to a gold rush town, to New Zealand’s largest urban centre. Its population tripled in the 1870s. Dunedin experienced a growth of major public buildings, and space was found on one side of the upper story of the new Post Office Building to house the Museum collection. The following year the University of Otago moved into the same building; and so began the long-standing link between the two institutions. By 15 September 1868 the Otago Museum was opened to the public.

Appointed as the Director of the New Zealand Geological Survey and the Colonial Museum, Hector had left Dunedin in 1865. In October 1873 the Provincial Superintendent appointed Frederick Wollaston Hutton (1836-1905) as Provincial Geologist and the first official curator. Hutton’s first priority was larger, purpose-built accommodation.

Selection of the museum site caused debate. Initial plans sited the museum opposite the entrance to the Botanical Gardens. In August 1874, three political heavyweights Rev Dr D.M. Stuart, Captain Edward Cargill and John Hyde Harris, formed a deputation to the Provincial Deputy Superintendent, arguing that it was ‘absolutely necessary that the Museum be as near to the University as possible...The desire was to promote education generally...and if the institution was placed so great a distance from the centre of the town, it would be deprived of its character as a great practical school for the people, because working men and others would find it hard to attend the institution at so great a distance’. Their appeal was duly noted and sections on the public recreation reserve between Great King Street, Albany Street and Cumberland Street were secured.

The land on which the Museum was built was located in a block of swampy reserve land which included a public reserve for gardens (used as Chinese market gardens), the police barracks and a school reserve. These public reserves were part of a group of reserves set aside by Charles Kettle in his 1846 survey for the New Zealand Company, withheld from the sale of the 400,000 acre Otago Block and Crown granted to the superintendent of the Otago province in 1865, and vested in the management of the Dunedin City Corporation.

The Maori history of this area relates particularly to coastal Otago (Te Tai o Araiteuru) and the tradition of the waka Arai Te Uru. Muaupoko (Otago Peninsula) in particular provided a sheltered place for settlement At one time, prior to Pakeha settlement, up to twelve kaika existed in the lower Otago harbour. The coastline was a major trade route. Tauranga waka (moorings) and associated nohoanga (dwelling places) occurred up and down the coast, linking sea and land based resources. These traditions and histories are echoed in the present day Museum, presented in consultation with local Maori. The carving at the entrance way to the Tangata Whenua Gallery depicts the three ancestral waka - Araiteuru, Takitimu, and Uruao. The gallery includes Pataka Whakairo (the carved storehouse), WakaTe Paranihi and the gateway from Mapoutahi Pa - the scene of fighting between two groups of the Ngai Tahu tribe in the middle of the eighteenth century.

The Design:

In July 1874 Otago Provincial Gazette invited competitive designs for a museum building. In mid October architect David Ross (1827-1908) was announced as the winner. Ross was one of Dunedin’s most important architects and designed a number’s of the city’s major buildings, including the Union Steam Ship Company’s office, the Octagon Buildings, and the Athenaeum. Born in Scotland, Ross settled in Dunedin around 1862. After a brief partnership with William Mason he established his own practice. In 1870 he applied for a patent for the frames and apparatus required for concrete construction. This application places Ross at the forefront of the development of mass concrete construction. In 1875, architect Francis Petre used concrete to build Judge Chapman’s house. Although Petre was nicknamed ‘Lord Concrete’, it was not until 1877 that he used concrete in a major public building; the same year the Museum was constructed. Arguably, Ross was no less at the forefront of the new technology than Petre.

Ross’ design was based on the Cambridge Museum of Natural History in the United Kingdom. Due to financial considerations the Council decided to construct only the central portion of his design. The Otago Witness described Ross’ design, classifying the style of architecture as ‘Classical Greek.’ The entrance had sweeping steps up to a porch with imposing double Doric columns on each side. The design had a total frontage to Great King Street of about 200 feet (61 metres) by a depth of about 80 feet (24.3 metres). The basement was only partially sunk and, in this way, it could be well lighted and ventilated. The front of the building was designed with panelled spaces in which it was proposed to insert groups of statues in bas relief.

The main hall was 90 feet by 45 feet (27.4 by 13.7 metres). The height of the hall was 50 feet (15.2 metres) in the central portion. Two mezzanine galleries ran around the outer walls, providing more exhibition space. Elegant iron columns running from the floor to the roof supported the galleries on their outer sides. Behind the main hall were the curator’s room, invertebrate room and herbarium. The basement included a private room for the professor, a lecture room, a class room, a library, an unpacking-room, and a taxidermists’ room.

Ross proposed that all floors be made of fireproof concrete and that iron girders be used. He also ensured the building would be well lit using large skylights over the main hall, large and numerous windows and a row of lunettes on the perpendicular section of the roof.


Contractor Edward Willis Uren won the tender. The foundations were laid in December 1874 and construction took almost three years. By February 1876 the walls of the basement were in place with the breccia and andesite base ready to receive the concrete walls. Some of the blocks were nearly eight feet long (2.4 metres), weighing up to nearly three tons (2721 kg). On completion the total cost of the structure and fittings was £12,500.

The Otago Museum Act 1877 vested the land, the buildings and all the exhibits to the University of Otago. An endowment fund was also provided. This arrangement lasted almost 80 years.

The Opening:

The Museum was opened on 11 August 1877. Though no ceremony was held it was visited by several hundred people that afternoon. First impressions were positive: ‘In point of construction, it leaves nothing to be desired, and is, in this particular, better adapted to the purpose than any Museum in New Zealand or Australia’. The Otago Museum was second only to the Colonial Museum in Wellington in providing a purpose-built facility for its collections.

One visitor was ‘agreeably surprised yesterday at the internal appearance of the building, the numerousness of the exhibits, and…the taste and judgement exhibited in classifying them:

‘On entering the building, the first thing which strikes the attention is the skeleton of a huge whale, and in close proximity the skeletons of moas and other large struthious birds, and the skeleton of a giraffe. On the same floor are numerous predaceous beasts (stuffed), including representatives of the lion and tiger species, Seals, sharks, monkeys, of varieties too numerous to mention, are here found in life-like postures. This floor, if it may not instruct many of the old, will certainly delight the young.’

On the first floor, accessed ‘by a commodious and handsome staircase’, were fossils, New Zealand stone implements, Maori images and artefacts, and a large collection of shells. On the upper floor the ‘eye is literally bewildered with the superb collection of birds of all countries and climes.’ There was also a large collection of insects.

The opening of the Museum was not without controversy. A week later, Rev Dr Stuart read the advertisement announcing that the Museum would be opened on Sunday afternoons at Knox Church’s morning service. He had ‘observed the announcement with regret, as this was another innovation on the rights and privileges of the people in the due observance of the Sabbath Day.’ He trusted his congregation ‘would not countenance the affair by their presence’. Public meetings followed, petitioning the Governor of New Zealand to close the Museum on Sundays.

Sabbatarians did not go unopposed. As one commentator wrote ‘So says Dr Stuart. Faugh! I am sick of hearing such balderdash. But as for the Museum, you pay for it, but it is by no means for you. It is only for rich people, those who have leisure during the week to visit it whilst you are at work. On Sundays – the only day when it is possible for you to see it - it is to be shut. It is, then, no longer a means of education...’

The public voted with their feet. It was reported that on each of the Sunday afternoons on 12th and 19th August about 7000 persons visited. Even the Dunedin Presbytery in January of 1878 remarked that ‘thousands mustered in favour of the opening.’ This controversy was echoed in other parts of New Zealand and the world, as debate raged over the secularisation of the Sabbath. In December 1879 the director, Hutton, resigned. He was succeeded by Professor Thomas Jeffery Parker, one of New Zealand’s greatest biologists. Parker organised the natural history specimens along Darwinian lines during his tenure from 1880 to 1897. Some of his handwritten labels are still on display.

In 1884 the whale skeleton, earlier purchased from Captain William Barry, was mounted and suspended from iron girders extending between the columns supporting the upper gallery. The 17 metre long fin whale skeleton is one of only a few complete fin whale skeletons in the world.

Into the Twentieth Century:

Spanning the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as head of the Museum was another prominent scientist, Professor William Benham (1860-1950). He was a zoologist of international renown who took up the Chair of Biology at the University in 1898 and, with it, the curatorship of the Otago Museum. He reorganised collections along ‘modern’ lines, building a notable comparative anatomy collection. He taught botany, zoology, dental anatomy, palaeontology, and was active on the University Council. Benham helped cement the relationship between the Museum and the University. By 1929, the Otago University Museum was considered the finest teaching museum in the Commonwealth. Benham was curator for 39 years. Retiring in 1937, he was awarded an honorary doctorate of science and in 1939 was knighted.

The Hocken Wing:

While work continued on maintaining the building and fixing some of the apparent defects (for example, in 1907 the Museum was ‘rendered watertight’ by the removal of the original wooden-framed skylights and the substitution of modern metal-framed lights, which effectively keep the rain out of the building) it became clear that more space was required for the expanding collection. By the early years of the twentieth century exhibition space was at a premium. A new Wing was required. Coincidentally, Dr Hocken was looking for a suitable institution to house his collection.

Thomas Morland Hocken (1836-1910) arrived in Dunedin in February 1862. He quickly established himself as a leading physician, a coroner, and later as manager of Dunedin Hospital and Lunatic Asylum. From the late 1870s, however, Hocken’s major passion was collecting. He travelled widely, collecting artefacts including Maori cloaks, hei tiki, mere and wooden carvings. From 1891 the Museum acquired almost the whole of this collection of Maori artefacts, which formed the basis of the ethnographic department. More particularly, however, Hocken is remembered for his collection of manuscripts, maps, paintings, photographs, newspapers, books and pamphlets relating to New Zealand and the Pacific.

On 2 September 1907 the Hocken Library Deed of Trust was signed gifting the collection to the people of New Zealand, to be held in trust by the University of Otago. The Deed was signed ‘upon condition that proper provision was made for appropriately housing the said Collection in Dunedin’. A new Museum Wing was agreed upon. The Deed included details of a building appeal which had raised £5553. The public subscribed £2576, £200 was donated by the Dunedin City Council, and £2776 was provided by the government, which matched pound for pound the amounts donated by subscribers and the Council.

Ross’ original design was reconsidered but thought to be too expensive. John Arthur Burnside (1856-1920) was chosen as architect for the new Wing. Born in Dunedin, Burnside became a well-known architect designing many of Dunedin’s important buildings, including the Perpetual Trustees and Agency Company building, the Theological Hall, Ashburn Hall, and the Burns Monument. He won competitions for the Colonial Mutual Life Offices and the Auckland Stock Exchange.

Burnside’s design was ‘in accordance’ with Ross’ original design. Added to the north side of the existing structure, Burnside designed a two-storied Wing. He also changed the shape and order of the windows but added similar decorative masonry on the cornice. The frontage was 47 feet (14.3 metres), with a height of 34 feet (10.3 metres) above the footpath. The northern side was 80 feet (24.4 metres) in length. The basement was to be constructed in stone and the two upper stories in brick and cement. The exterior would be as ‘as ornate as funds will permit and in keeping with the main building’. The large ground floor was for the display of exhibits. A large arched entranceway connected the central portion and the new Wing. Immediately inside this arch was to be a large concrete staircase leading to the first floor containing the Hocken Library.

The Curator, William Benham, said of the design ‘it is a distinctly handsome building, and the lighting is surprisingly good. I instructed the architect to use prismatic glass for the windows, which I had noticed highly recommended by museum experts in Europe and America: the result surpasses our expectation. The Exhibition Hall on the ground floor, which measures 75 feet by 40 feet (22.8 by 12.2 metres), and is 15 feet high (4.6 metres), is illuminated by windows at each end along one side; there is no dark corner in the hall….The Picture Gallery above is similarly lighted, but the library has clear glass windows on two sides, and being a smaller room is equally well lit. A gas-stove has been placed in this room for the convenience of readers in the winter...The basement, which I propose to have fitted partly as a laboratory, partly as a museum for teaching purposes,...is also illuminated on one side by prismatic glass, while the widows on the east side, below which the work benches will be placed, have clear glass’.

In January 1908 tenders were called for. Mr Orr Campbell’s tender for £3981 was accepted in February By April 1909 the build was complete. The Hocken Wing was opened on 23 March 1910 by the Governor Lord Plunket. Dr Hocken was ill and did not attend. He died in May.

Fels Wing:

The Museum collections continued to expand, due in part to the generosity of its many benefactors. Preeminent among these were the likes of Mary, Dora and Esmond de Beer, Charles Brasch, James Rattray, Alexander Thomson, Sir Frederick Chapman, James Begg, Dr Marjorie Barclay, Fred Waite, Percy Sargood, David Teviotdale, David Theomin, and Daniel Colquhoun.

Foremost amongst such benefactors was Willi Fels (1858-1946), who donated some 80,000 artefacts over the course of his life. Fels was born in Germany but moved to New Zealand with his new wife Sara, and her father successful businessman Bendix Hallenstein. Fels eventually became Managing Director of Hallenstein Bros and the Drapery and General Importing Company of NZ (DIC). Fels was an avid collector of objects of art, coins and of ethnographic material. Financially generous, donating more that £25,000 to the Museum, Fels was also a long-time chairman of the Museum Management Committee. The establishment of the Melanesian, Polynesian and Maori collections were largely due to his efforts.

When additional exhibition space was required Willi Fels was at the forefront of the project. The Willi Fels Wing was added to the south of Ross’ central portion. The Wing was designed by the architect Edmund Anscombe, although it is often ascribed to Miller and White. Edmund Anscombe (1874-1948) studied architecture in the United States, returning to Dunedin in 1907. Soon after he was appointed architect to the University Council, a position he held until 1929.

By 1927 sketch plans for a new wing were before the Museum Extension Committee. On 30 January 1928 Anscombe submitted his final plans. Later that year, Anscombe left for Wellington and his firm was taken over by the new Dunedin architectural partnership of Miller and White. They submitted the plans to the Dunedin City Council under the name of Miller & White, for Edmund Anscombe and Associates.

G. Lawrence & Sons won the tender at a price of £20,359. Construction began in October 1928 and by December 1929 the building was completed, with costs increasing to £22,000. The Extension Committee raised almost £25,000, to which the Government agreed to grant a subsidy of an equal amount.

On 16 October 1930 the Willi Fels Wing was officially opened by the chairman of the Museum Committee, Dr Marshall Macdonald. The wing was described as ‘striking architectural contrast to the main building, for in place of the dull grey concrete with Corinthian pillars and various heavy ornamentations considered correct at the time of its erection, in the new Wing the concrete is coated with a cream-coloured cement, giving the appearance of Oamaru stone, and the ornamentation has been reduced to a minimum; broad flat-grooved pillars separating the tall windows and passing from the base to the roof. ‘ The Wing consisted of two floors, each containing large halls measuring 120 feet by 60 feet (36.6 by 18.3 metres). Graceful narrow square concrete pillars supported the ceilings. The design included a handsome stairway of marble-like terrazzo flanked at the bottom by a pair of green serpentine square newel posts, and banisters covered by the same material. The Curator saluted the efforts of Fels, noting ‘this fine addition was rendered possible by the enthusiasm of Mr. Willi Fels’.

The 1930s and 1940s:

The Museum’s first New Zealand-born director was Henry Devenish Skinner, who was in charge from 1937 to 1957, although he was on staff as assistant curator from 1918. In 1919 Skinner was the first in Australasia to be appointed as a lecturer in anthropology. Skinner also obtained the position of librarian at the Hocken Library (1919-1926) and expanded in the collection. The greatest contribution of his career, however, is generally regarded as his revival of the Museum. Whereas his predecessors focussed mainly on natural science collections, Skinner built up the Museum’s cultural side. He grew the Maori and Pacific collections and encouraged the collection of antiquities from the Mediterranean and Middle East, and fine arts from Europe and Asia. He encouraged archaeological research into New Zealand pre-history. By 1951 Skinner could report that the Museum was richer by more than 100,000 acquisitions since 1919. He successfully brought the Museum ‘from provincial obscurity to national significance’.

The 1950s-1960s:

Succeeding Skinner as director in August 1957, Dr Raymond Forster (1922-2000) ushered in a period of research in the biological sciences. Forster combined his administrative duties with his research into spiders, gaining an international reputation for the collection, classification and biology of New Zealand spiders.

Two major changes took place in the 1950s. In 1955 the control of the museum was transferred from the University to a new Otago Museum Trust Board created by an Act of Parliament. Secondly, in the early 1950s the central well space between the second and third mezzanine galleries was filled in. This created extra exhibition space but altered Ross’ original design.

The 1963 Memorial Wing:

To commemorate the centenary of Otago in 1948, an additional wing was proposed. Funding issues saw the project delayed. In July 1957 Cabinet approved a grant of £40,000. A further £30,000 was still required. It was not until November 1958 that the final plans by James Hodge White (1896-1970) were approved.

James White had trained with Dunedin firm Salmond & Vane before serving in World War I. After the war he trained at the London School of Architecture. Returning to Dunedin, he formed a successful partnership with Eric Miller in 1927. Particularly interested in Art Deco, it has been said that he left ‘an indelible impression on the Dunedin cityscape’.

On 23 March 1963 the Centennial Memorial Wing was opened by the Governor-General Brigadier Sir Bernard Fergusson. Built by Fletcher Construction, it was attached to the eastern side of the Fels Wing and fronted on to the Museum Reserve. The Centennial Wing accommodated the H.D. Skinner Hall of Polynesia ‘which demonstrated beautifully the modern method of display techniques.’ The spaces also catered for the Hall of Marine Life, the new Natural History gallery and administration offices.

July 1973 saw the new Maritime Gallery opened. Situated on the second floor of Ross’ original building, it was established in conjunction with the Otago Maritime Society. Containing model boats, ship flags, and bells, the centrepiece was the fin whale skeleton suspended from the ceiling since 1884.

The Children’s Gallery: Animal Attic:

Despite the Museum’s many physical changes, the Children’s Gallery remained largely intact and unchanged. Now known as the Animal Attic, it is one of New Zealand’s finest examples of timbered Victorian architecture. The centre of the Gallery is shiplap rimu, the centre is supported by kauri and rimu beams and the display cases are carved oak and mahogany. The exhibition layout also remains intact, representing one of the few remaining examples worldwide of a Victorian gallery and the only one of its kind in New Zealand. The layout reflects the Victorian’s evolutionary views, ‘with the specimens displayed in a linear fashion from single celled animals to human beings, seen as the pinnacle of evolution.’

The Animal Attic is at the top level of the original Ross portion. From its inception, the Museum was lit by skylights and windows that flooded the gallery with natural light. This caused UV damage to the specimens which faded over the years. The Attic, having fallen into disrepair, was closed in 1979 by the New Zealand Fire Service as it no longer satisfied egress requirements. In 1996, however, the Animal Attic underwent a major redevelopment project, with the goal to restore the gallery to its original layout.

The 1980s-2000s:

In 1980 the Hocken Library moved from the Hocken Wing to the Hocken Building on the University Campus. Hocken’s collection of artefacts remained at the Museum.

Following Richard Cassels, who focused on the Museum’s responsibilities in the wider community, Shimrath Paul was appointed Director in 1995. Paul oversaw an 18 million dollar Museum redevelopment, designed by prominent Dunedin architect Ted McCoy.

Ted McCoy, of McCoy and Wixon, established his practice in 1950. He was awarded the Gold Medal for lifetime achievement in architecture from the NZ Institute of Architects and has won eight national awards and twenty regional awards for his buildings.

The contractors were Naylor Love. Funds were attracted from the New Zealand Lottery Grants Board, the Community Trust of Otago, Central Government, local government and corporate and public fundraising.

Extensions were carried out to the rear of Ross’ main block. Two stages, completed in 1996 and 2000, saw a new building of three floors. By 2000 there was a new entrance way, atrium, café, shop, conference venue and grand staircase. On 9 December 2000 Prime Minister Helen Clark opened the redeveloped Museum. With over 1.7 million collection items, many of national and international significance, the Otago Museum is one of the largest museums in New Zealand.

Physical Description

Construction Professionals:

Orr Campbell - Builder

G. Lawrence & Sons - Builder

Naylor Love - Builder

The Otago Museum is located in North Dunedin alongside the campus of the University of Otago, and a short distance from the commercial centre of Dunedin. The Museum sits alongside the Museum Reserve, which is a grassed area planted with mature exotic trees. The Museum makes a significant contribution to the streetscape of this part of North Dunedin.

From the north the 1910 Hocken Wing is the first part of the Museum to be seen. The north elevation of the building is largely obscured by vegetation. The west elevation aspect is visible from the street, although the view is partially obscured by a narrow strip of garden running the length of the original portions behind an iron railing fence. The title ‘Hocken Wing’ is inscribed above the first floor windows. The building consists of a basement and two floors. The exterior is decorated with engaged columns with flower motifs. The cornice is decorated with dentils. The embellishments echo those of the original Ross portion.

The Ross portion is set back some metres from the Hocken Wing and is a storey higher. Six windows frame the entrance way on the ground floor, each with a pediment echoing the low pitched gable above the entrance way. The second floor has 24 smaller windows, while the third floor exhibits ten panelled spaces in which it was proposed to insert groups of statues in bas relief. The most prominent feature is the entrance portico, designed with sweeping steps up to a porch with imposing double Doric columns on each side. There are two railing fences in front of the building. One protects the basement; there are plantings in front of this, then another iron railing from the Hocken Wing runs up the steps to the columns. Two Moeraki boulders are on either side of the entrance way, placed among the plantings. The basement is constructed of Port Chalmers breccia stone and Leith Valley andesite.

The Willi Fels Wing joins on to this original portion on the south elevation, jutting out to the line of the iron railing fence in front of the Hocken and Ross portions. It features two stories set a top a basement. There are two arched windows, four large rectangular windows and two smaller windows, featuring small panes of glass. They are framed by pilasters. The flower motifs above the arched windows echo the flowers at the top of the columns on the Hocken Wing.

Turning left into the entrance way, the Fels Wing continues down the length of the path, with the Museum Reserve to the right, featuring trees which are over 100 years old. The ground slopes gently to the modern entrance, opened in 2000. The entrance way is imposing, featuring glass, chrome and four large pillars supporting a block proclaiming the Otago Museum. This entrance was originally part of the 1963 Centennial Wing. Continuing south towards Cumberland Street, the exterior of this Wing can be seen. During the Museum’s redevelopment phase in the 1990s, architect John McCoy modified the windows on the second floor or the Wing. Turning the corner into Cumberland Street, an interior staircase is visible through glass walls. The exterior then juts back away from the street, providing car park space. This is the back of the building and provides trade entrances etc.

Returning to the entrance way, access is through two sets of automatic glass doors. Museum reception and shop are to the left and the café and Hutton Theatre to the left. The most arresting features of this space are the new grand stairwell and the development of a central atrium with skylight. This atrium echoes the original Ross design.

Taking the staircase to the first floor, on the left of the atrium is the H.D. Skinner Hall of Polynesia, which depicts the cultures and traditions of the people of the Pacific Islands. It is named for Dr Skinner who built up the Museum’s cultural collections of Maori and Pacific items. This gallery is a fine representation of the style of ethnographic display in the early 1960s. It remains virtually unmodified since the Centennial Wing was opened in 1963.

To the right of the atrium is the Fels Wing. Although modified, the ceilings and supports display the original simple detailing. It houses the Tangata Whenua Gallery which was redeveloped in 1990 to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. The Museum liaised with Maori to create a design which would tell the stories of the makers and users of the artefacts on display. The gallery includes Pataka Whakairo (the carved storehouse), WakaTe Paranihi and pieces from Mapoutahi Pa - the scene of fighting between two groups of the Ngai Tahu tribe in the middle of the eighteenth century.

At the end of this gallery are the original fine double doors which connected the Fels Wing to the Ross building. On the left are the original terrazzo stairs leading to the second story of the Fels Wing. The stairs are black and white terrazzo and the staircase handrail is a mottled green terrazzo. On the left is the second floor of the Fels Wing housing the People of the World Gallery, exhibiting an outstanding collection of treasures relating to cultures around the world. On this level the original Fels windows are accessible. The architraves are fibrous plaster. Terazzo tiles form a windowsill. The window catches appear to be copper.

Returning down the original Fels staircase, the wall of which is decorated with the photographs of past benefactors, a right turn through the original connecting doors leads to the ground floor of the Ross building. It is currently used as a gallery space. The original ceilings are barrel shaped at each edge. The entrance, currently walled off from public access, displays double wooden doors, above which sits an antique clock. Through these doors is a foyer paved with black and terracotta tiles, a delicately decorated ceiling, and another set of double wooden doors leading to the outside. At the back of this exhibition space was original a bluestone lean-to. It was demolished during Stage 1 of the redevelopment and ‘Discovery World’ and the Tropical Forest now occupies the space.

Walking through to the end of the 1877 gallery is a connecting door to the Hocken Wing. This space is now used for storage. There is a false ceiling, the windows are covered and few original details can be seen.

The original Hocken staircase has been removed, as has the Ross staircase. Moving back through the 1877 Gallery, up the Fels staircase once again, and to the right is the second floor of the Ross building. It houses the Maritime Gallery. The fin whale skeleton hangs from iron girders, and has done so since 1884. It once hung suspended in midair and was an impressive feature of Ross’ atrium. It became enclosed on the second floor when the central well was filled in, and later became the centrepiece of the Maritime Gallery.

Following the stairs near the entrance to the Maritime Gallery leads upwards to Ross’ third mezzanine gallery, now known as the Animal Attic. This space has undergone little modification other than the infilling of the central well space. It is a superb example of Victorian architecture. Rimu and kauri are the key materials. The kauri ceiling and classical columns are intricately carved. The original display cases are carved oak and mahogany. The ethnographic layout is also unmodified and even some of the labels are original. The displays are laid out according to contemporary classifications of living things. This space represents one of the few remaining examples in the world of an original Victorian museum gallery, both in terms of architecture and exhibition protocol.

The windows and skylights in the roof provided the original Museum with natural light. The specimens, however, were damaged by the UV light. The rectangular windows framing the skylights are now frosted and the skylights appear to have toughened protective glass.

Leaving the Animal Attic via a ‘Staff Only’ door there is access to a mezzanine corridor which looks over Discovery World. Following a modern staircase upwards, entry is afforded to the second floor of the Hocken Wing. This space is used as Education Resource rooms for children. Originally, this area accommodated the Hocken Library. The intricately detailed ceilings are impressive and indicate how decorative the original design must have been. The ground floor, now a storage area, provides no indication of its previous grandeur and many exterior embellishments were removed soon after construction. The ceilings, therefore, are a significant representation of its original state. The original dividing walls also remain. Entry is into a room where once the catalogues were placed. Through a doorway, with original Hocken doors, is the original reading room which runs the length of the Great King Street frontage. Exiting through another set of doors, entry is gained to another large room currently divided into a kitchenette and a mezzanine storage area. This space was probably the original gallery area where some of Hocken’s collection of paintings and prints were displayed.

Returning down stairs to the ground floor, through the public toilets area and to a ‘Staff only’ door beyond, access is afforded to the basement area. The basement areas of the Museum have been totally renovated to provide modern storage facilities for their vast collections. Small rooms have been combined to provide several storage rooms filled with mobile storage shelves. A few original features can still be found. The basement of Ross’ portion features barrel ceilings, identical to those in the gallery above. The basement walls below the Fels Wing still contain the original wooden louvered vents which permitted airflow. Although, the exterior windows have been covered, the outline of the windows is still visible on the walls.

In public and non-public areas alike, the fabric of the building appears well maintained. Original features have been well maintained, where appropriate to exhibition changes. The use of false walls also protects original features. Preservation of the fabric and contemporary display techniques in the H.D. Skinner Hall and the Animal Attic, in particular are significant. These galleries not only provide informative displays but, on another level, are rare testaments to the museum philosophies of the time.

Construction Dates

Original Construction
1877 -
The Museum was opened to the public for the first time on 11 August 1877.

1910 -
Hocken Wing opened

1929 -
Fels Wing opened

1963 -
Memorial Wing opened

2000 -
New Museum redevelopment opened

Construction Details

Stone: Breccia, Andesite. Concrete, Timber joinery

Completion Date

4th February 2010

Report Written By

Susan Irvine

Information Sources

Cyclopedia of New Zealand, 1905

Cyclopedia Company, Industrial, descriptive, historical, biographical facts, figures, illustrations, Wellington, N.Z, 1897-1908, Vol. 4 Otago and Southland, Cyclopedia Company, Christchurch, 1905

Dictionary of New Zealand Biography

Dictionary of New Zealand Biography

Atholl Anderson, 'Skinner, Henry Devenish 1886 - 1978', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, URL: http://www.dnzb.govt.nz/, accessed 17 Dec 2009.

Dimitri Anson, 'Fels, Willi 1858 - 1946', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, URL: http://www.dnzb.govt.nz/ DNZB, accessed 17 Dec 2009.

Greg Bowron, 'Anscombe, Edmund 1874 - 1948', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, URL: http://www.dnzb.govt.nz/, accessed 17 Dec 2009.

Dunedin City Council

Dunedin City Council, Building Records

Building Permit Plans for Otago Museum, Permits 276, 1210, Dunedin City Council Archives.

Hocken Library

Hocken Library, University of Otago, Dunedin

Dalziel Architects Records, 1874-2006, ARC-0520, Hocken Collections. Hocken Collections, ‘Dalziel Architects records’, URL: http://hakena.otago.ac.nz/nreq/Welcome.html, accessed 17 Dec 2009.

Hocken Library, Deed of Trust, 2 Sep 1907, URL: http://www.library.otago.ac.nz/pdf/Hocken_Deed_Trust.PDF, accessed 17 Dec 2009.

Knight, H. & N. Wales, 1988

Hardwicke Knight and Niel Wales, Buildings of Dunedin: An Illustrated Architectural Guide to New Zealand's Victorian City, John McIndoe, Dunedin, 1988

Royal Society of New Zealand

The Royal Society of New Zealand

‘In Memoriam. Captain F.W. Hutton, F.R.S.’, Transaction of Proceedings of the Royal Society of New Zealand, vol. 38, 1905, URL: http://rsnz.natlib.govt.nz/volume/rsnz_38/rsnz_38_00_000050.html, accessed 2 Dec 2009.

Thomson, 1998

Jane Thomson, (ed)., Southern People: A Dictionary of Otago Southland Biography, Dunedin: Longacre Press/Dunedin City Council, 1998.

p. 157

Knight, 1983

H Knight, Otago Calvacade 1901-1905, 1983

Te Ara - The Encyclopedia of New Zealand


Malcolm McKinnon, Malcolm 'Otago places - Dunedin', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand,

URL: http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/otago-places/6, accessed 26 Jan 2010.

Other Information

A fully referenced report is available from the Southern Region office of NZHPT.

Please note that entry on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rarangi Korero identifies only the heritage values of the property concerned, and should not be construed as advice on the state of the property, or as a comment of its soundness or safety, including in regard to earthquake risk, safety in the event of fire, or insanitary conditions.