Hundreds of teddies have been abandoned, thousands of children lost and found, and tens of thousands of lightbulbs have been changed in the 20 years since Te Papa was opened.

Today marks the 20th birthday of Te Papa Tongarewa The Museum of New Zealand, which opened with a dawn ceremony on Valentines Day 1998.

Thousands gathered to be the first to visit the high-profile new building. The radical concept for Te Papa was that it would be a bicultural museum, and incorporate both the national museum and national art collection.

Opening day 20 years ago holds the record for the most visitors to the museum, with 35,000 people pouring through the doors after they opened at midday.

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The second busiest day in Te Papa's history was April 12 the same year, with 21,232 visitors.

If the more than two million visitors who visited in its first year of the 28.5 million who have visited since it opened is anything to go by, Te Papa was embraced by New Zealanders.

While controversies raged – including protests about the Tania Kovats "Virgin in a condom" artwork – the public continued to visit Te Papa in their thousands.

By today, Te Papa will have had almost 30 million visitors, discovered more than 400 new species, hosted more than 3000 pōwhiri, and rocked visitors with more than 1.3 million shakes of its famous earthquake house.

Gallipoli: The Scale of our War exhibition was a collaboration between Te Papa and Weta Workshop, which included a giant model of Sergeant Cecil Malthus. Photo / Michael Hall, Te Papa
Gallipoli: The Scale of our War exhibition was a collaboration between Te Papa and Weta Workshop, which included a giant model of Sergeant Cecil Malthus. Photo / Michael Hall, Te Papa

Te Papa is consistently rated as one of the world's best museums, and a top attraction in New Zealand, and its approach to storytelling and biculturalism remains a model for museums around the world.

Chief executive Geraint Martin said the reason for Te Papa's success is that it offers a new kind of museum experience.

"Museums aren't cupboards full of old stuff, they're a mirror held up to society," Martin said.

"Our aim is that every New Zealander can see themselves reflected at Te Papa, and that international visitors can understand the richness and diversity of Aotearoa."

The museum has always faced criticism, and he hoped it always would.

"Given the significance of the stories we tell, it's very healthy that they are the basis for debate and disagreement.

Iwi move taonga from the Dominion Museum on Buckle St to Te Papa on the waterfront, in March 1997. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, EP/1997/0787/28A-F
Iwi move taonga from the Dominion Museum on Buckle St to Te Papa on the waterfront, in March 1997. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, EP/1997/0787/28A-F

"We are here to cherish and treasure our culture, but also to challenge the old ways of doing things, to engage and surprise, and sometimes to provoke. Te Papa needs to be a safe place for challenging national questions."

Major changes are ahead for Te Papa in the coming years, Martin said.

"Next month we open a new art gallery in Te Papa, Toi Art, the biggest change to the museum since opening."

The $8.4 million space offers a vast, newly created gallery able to hold works that have never been shown at Te Papa before, and the opening on March 17 will reveal major commissions by contemporary New Zealand artists.

Arapata Hakiwai, Te Papa's Kaihautū (Māori co-leader), said the museum was reliant on its relationships with iwi, hapū and whānau. Photo / Michael Hall, Te Papa
Arapata Hakiwai, Te Papa's Kaihautū (Māori co-leader), said the museum was reliant on its relationships with iwi, hapū and whānau. Photo / Michael Hall, Te Papa

Te Papa's Kaihautū (Māori co-leader) Dr Arapata Hakiwai has been with the museum since its earliest days. He said the strength of Te Papa has always been in its ties to the community.

"Te Papa is different from other museums, and we celebrate that difference," Hakiwai said. "We are a place where everyone can feel at home, and everyone can find a place to stand.

"As a bicultural museum we have always been reliant on our relationships with iwi, hapū and whānau, and as we mark our 20th anniversary we want to recognise and acknowledge that ongoing support: E ngā mana whenua, E ngā iwi o te motu tena koutou mo o koutou tautoko mai. No mātou te honore kia mahi ngātahi ai."

Te Papa will mark its birthday with a special evening concert, and activities in the museum including special free tours and film screenings. The museum will be open until 9pm.

Sir Peter Blake was the first to step across the threshold, accompanied by children Tama Whiting, 5, and Grace Sweeney, 8, at the opening of Te Papa, February 14, 1998. Photo / Te Papa
Sir Peter Blake was the first to step across the threshold, accompanied by children Tama Whiting, 5, and Grace Sweeney, 8, at the opening of Te Papa, February 14, 1998. Photo / Te Papa
Te Papa and cranes from Chaffers Marina in April 1996. Photo / Michael Hall, Te Papa
Te Papa and cranes from Chaffers Marina in April 1996. Photo / Michael Hall, Te Papa

Most popular exhibition

Gallipoli: The scale of our war

is the most popular exhibition in New Zealand's history, with 1,813,916 visits from its opening on April 18, 2015, to the end of January 2018. It cost $8 million to create, and was created by Te Papa working closely with Weta Workshop. It is free to visit.

Most popular paid exhibitions

- Lord of the Rings 1.
Open: 19.12.02 - 21.04.03
Visitors: 219,539

- Monet & the Impressionists

Open: 14.02.09 - 17.05.09
Visitors: 152,094

- Whales Tohorä
Open: 01.12.07 - 10.05.08
Visitors: 140,207

- Bug Lab
Open: 10.12.16 - 17.04.17
Visitors: 137,741

- Dreamworks
Open: 12.12.15 - 28.03.16
Visitors: 135,107

Twenty years of Te Papa - fun facts

- Shakes of the earthquake house - 1.3 million
- New species discovered - over 400
- Exhibitions opened - 170
- Artworks treated by conservators - 1580
- Scientific expeditions - 700
- Teddies abandoned - 550
- Children lost (and found) - 3500
- Lightbulbs changed - 22,000
- Coffees served – over 3 million