The ice axe used by Sir Edmund Hillary in his historic ascent of Mt Everest is languishing in a museum stairwell next to cardboard boxes and coffee cups.

The tool was gifted to the Auckland War Memorial Museum by his widow, Lady June Hillary, in 2008 on the condition it be permanently displayed.

Next to its current home is a nondescript display case containing ceramic pots and cups and a cardboard box that once contained Crown Lynn "fine coffeeware".

Museum spokeswoman Laura Westphal said the box and cups had "absolutely no connection with Hillary and his axe".

The axe was moved to the stairwell after a more prominent display of Hillary artefacts ended, she said.

"This isn't an ideal permanent exhibition - it's not wheelchair accessible - and we don't plan it to be there forever."

Hillary's son Peter was unaware of the axe's recent movements: "I haven't seen the display ... I'm not going to make a comment until I've seen the thing myself."

Hillary bought the French-made axe in 1951 and signed replicas have sold for thousands of dollars.

He wrote in his autobiography, High Adventure, of his ascent: "The crisp snow and the smooth easy blows of the ice axe all combined to make me feel a greater sense of power than I had ever felt at great altitude before."

Interim museum director Sir Don McKinnon would not be interviewed but defended the placement of the "iconic" axe in a written statement.

"The museum is committed to keeping Sir Edmund Hillary's ice axe on display at all times."

The museum and the surviving members of the Hillary family had a high-profile spat last year about access to the memorabilia and writings of the late mountaineer.

The dispute was resolved only after the intervention of Prime Minister John Key, who persuaded both parties to bury the hatchet. Lady June could not be reached for comment.