Te Papa is the 800-lb gorilla of museums in New Zealand. Its reputation is so good that people from other communities recommend seeing it. Te Papa is the national museum after all. The Wellington Museum’s ad seems to take advantage of that fact with a “Getting mistaken for Te Papa since 1999” slogan. While this might smack of the “we try harder” advertisements of a second place rental car company, it may also speak to the excellence with which the Wellington Museum’s storytelling style brings out the curiosity and focused joy of children visiting a place they remember.
The first floor contains the stories of Wellington – at least 100 of them, anyway. These stories are related to each other through their creativity, innovation and how they affected those in the city. There are several items relating to music and theater. The zoo is featured, and there is some mention of politics and strikes relating to their generative power and how they changed the working landscape.
The second floor is for the sailors and has an entire section dedicated the shipwrecks in the straits. The third floor represents the prehistory of the area and has a magical storytelling theater where projection and stage work together to bring Maori legends to life. The attic has a working time machine and uses different installations to tell the stories of the past through modern art. It even had a section about a film Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi were in (What We Do in the Shadows [affiliate link]). Perhaps, most important of all, the Wellington Museum has different leaflets to help people explore the collection in different ways, which gets more life out of its exhibits while breathing more life into them.
While Te Papa is blessed and cursed with the gift of size, the Wellington Museum is large enough without being too large. It gives its subject matter the scope that it needs to make it interesting without being overwhelming or too grandiose. Te Papa has empty floors to walk through where the space is open to the roof. Wellington Museum not as much. Te Papa has exhibits that are loosely related to each other – “The Natural World” includes animals, Maori ideas of the universe, how to protect yourself in an earthquake, and geologic specimens. Wellington Museum has to use its space to tell a cohesive story that doesn’t branch out into different areas too far, and it does so in glorious fashion.