It's not enough for a museum to have a bunch of stuff, any more. Te Papa has 2.2 million artefacts – books, shells, paintings, tools, feathers, sculptures, bones – and the challenge is to show enough of them in the right order that visitors walk away with a deeper appreciation of the New Zealand these objects describe. This is where the scientists hand off responsibility to the storytellers, and I was lucky to have one of each for an early tour of Te Taiao Nature, Te Papa's biggest refurbishment since opening in 1998.
One of the drivers of change was new technology – advances in LCD screens make it easier to supplement, say, a stuffed kākāpō with high-definition footage of the voluminous green parrot mucking about in the bush. In one exhibition room, you pledge to take a particular action to fight climate change, then click send and watch your digital envelope turn into an origami kererū then fly to a tree on the opposite wall. Meanwhile, you get a real-life email with links to further information on completing your pledge. If you'd suggested this stuff back in 1998 they would have thought you were bonkers.
When storyteller Ralph Upton was creating the design he drew up a table listing every different part of Te Taiao and which human senses would be activated by each.
The first museum to add sound to sight probably won an award for their blue-sky thinking, but in 2019 it's just as important to offer touch – a large moa bone to run your fingers over and imagine the world's biggest KFC drumstick – and now there's also smell, via a couple of little puffer devices that look like a mere novelty but apparently have had a huge impact on museum visitors with reduced vision or hearing. "We had to tone down the sulphur one," one of the staff members laughed as he was demonstrating it.
Te Taiao is loosely modelled around the journey of Māui – from his arrival and first encounter with kiwi, told in a clever silhouetted animation next to the entryway, to the geological formation of New Zealand via tectonic shifts/nifty fishing expedition, to the arrival and impact of human beings and the predictable but important section on how we're trashing the place. Climate change didn't feature much in the previous exhibition, but leaving it out would be unthinkable now, showing how urgently priorities have changed over the past couple of decades.
The museum has taken a light touch with this issue and others with controversial tendencies. Invasive predators are respectfully included as the right animals in the wrong place, though the "design your own rat trap" station gives a clue as to whose side the scientists are on.
Round the corner in an exhibit looking to the future, visitors vote on how they feel about certain ideas, creating thousands of data points for a digital wall display testing the temperature on questions like "should we ban petrol cars by 2030?"
I visited with my two young daughters and it was good fun watching what they were drawn to. At one point they stood with five or six others, all with their hands on a base station to "unlock" different sea creatures on a giant marine screen in front of them. "Look, these guys don't know each other but they're working together to create solutions and contribute to the biodiversity in front of them," said Leon Perrie, the science curator. Is it likely to rub off on their real-life actions? Who knows, but the very idea of an exhibit that only comes alive when six strangers collaborate would again have been unimaginable just a few years ago.
It wouldn't be Te Papa without the earthquake house, but even this has had a reboot. Pre-Canterbury there was a bit of fun to the "shake, rattle and roll" concept but, while the shed is still getting a pretty good rumble, the accompanying visual presentation does a more thoughtful job of evoking the stress and resignation of a family for whom aftershocks are part of daily life.
Te Taiao has a renewed focus on the flora and fauna unique to New Zealand – not just birds like moa, which write their own headline, but, for example, the hundreds of species of brown moth, each of which look plain on their own but create a thing of beauty when mounted together. New microscopes allow you to magnify these and other invertebrates on a brightly lit screen – it's hard to maintain something is boring when you're looking close up at the thousands of tiny hairs on its wings.
Even moving briskly you'd do well to get through this in an hour and there is extra for experts everywhere, meaning you could easily lose a morning here. It's scary to think about what New Zealand's natural world might look like 20 years from now, but there is enough wonder and optimism in Te Taiao that you can't help but feel uplifted when you leave.
flies daily from Auckland to Wellington.
are centrally located in the city.
: For more information on the Te Taiao Nature, go to