Remember those museum visits of childhood: school buses lumbering into the carpark while swaying teachers cautioned “no running please, and keep your voices down”? And, once inside, the galleries of labelled objects frustratingly quarantined behind glass?
Looking at the old coastal cutter Rewa, bedded in oozing harbour mud alongside a wormy wharf, the air alive with gull cries and the sound of trickling water, it is hard to reconcile such memories with the present. Yet the Rewa, dating from 1886, sits in a museum, too: Auckland’s newly opened Hobson Wharf, the trading name for the New Zealand National Maritime Museum.
For director Rodney Wilson, the $12 million project represents a “new breed” of museum which attempts to continue the traditional roles of heritage preservation, interpretation, education and scholarship, but in more engaging ways.
From the scuba-clad plunge of Auckland mayor Les Mills into the Waitemata Harbour in February 1992 to “turn the first sod,” the direction of Hobson Wharf has been unswerving.
Recognising that all New Zealanders originally came from somewhere else, the museum celebrates the country’s heritage of Polynesian, Maori, Dutch, English, and French navigation.
“We are a maritime people. We are from ocean-voyaging nations. This place is about interpreting ourselves in such terms,” says Wilson.
The museum tells the story, until now strangely neglected, of our ongoing relationship with the sea, from pre-European fishing and navigation to late-twentieth century ocean racing.
It is a heady mix of history and representation, with artefacts juxtaposed against audio-visual displays and theatrical setpieces. The front entrance, a mere bowsprit or two away from the massive, cradled bulk of America’s Cup challenge KZ1, itself has historical connections with the sea. Called the Launchman’s Building, it was for many years home to shipowners and agents servicing the Hauraki Gulf.
In the main building are resonant assemblages, including a coastal whaling station on a shelving beach strewn with bones and bleached timber. A whaleboat lies hauled up on the shingle next to heavy tackle—makeshift windlass, tryworks and blubber pots. Nearby stand raupo-thatched whalebone sheds. It is a scene of mournful desolation heightened by the rasp of the sea, overlaid with whale talk.
A few steps away is a reconstructed immigrants’ cabin of the 1840s. As people walk through the gloomy steerage accommodation, the cramped quarters creak and tilt disturbingly. A hatch above sweeps light across the worn floorboards.
“If it had been like this when we came, I don’t think I would have bothered,” says a white-haired woman groping for support.
Other visitors studiously search a computer database of nineteenth century immigration records to learn about their ancestors. On-screen information includes names, ages and occupations of migrants along with shipping details.
Polynesian settlement is examined in a woven flax and lashed timber canoe hall, Hawaiki. Here the Maori and Pacific canoes are dominated by the twin-masted 23-metre outrigger canoe Taratai from Kiribati. Other traditional vessels include the Waan Aelon Kein, a Marshallese outrigger walap, the Drua, a double-hulled Fijian canoe and, berthed in the museum’s marina, the Atiuan voyaging canoe Enuamanu 1. Also afloat are the towering 50-metre steam crane-ship Rapaki, the brigantine Breeze and the newly built scow Ted Ashby, a replica of the flat-bottomed traders once common on Auckland waters.
Indeed, the list of boats in the Hobson Wharf collection—there are over 100—reads as a who’s-who of New Zealand maritime history. They include the country’s oldest jetboat, the dory in which Colin Quincey rowed the Tasman Sea and a delightfully refined 1930s speedboat.
The museum also houses a fascinating collection of outboard motors, dating back to a Wisconsin Row-Boat 1918 model, as well as interactive navigation instruments and a large hall of immaculately restored New Zealand centreboard yachts.
There is even a seaside shop and a late-1950s bach called “Wai Whare,” complete with chromed chairs, plastic flyscreen and ceiling beading that doesn’t quite line up. Stepping across the rock-edged, paua-studded path into that time capsule. with its sounds of lawns being mowed and contented children shouting above the surf, is to bridge a gulf back to innocence.
Such evocations are a measure of the museum’s success. Wilson didn’t want Hobson Wharf to become “a cultural video parlour” of second-hand electronic experiences. It enjoys the advantage of having real artefacts, the actual products of history, there to be seen and touched.
But, equally, the museum is dedicated to preserving and interpreting human skills and experience. Throughout the year, in eight commercial workshops on site, visitors can see boatbuilders, sailmakers, a woodcarver, a scrimshander, boat restorers, riggers, Maori and Pacific craftspeople and others at work. Many of the workshops offer evening classes.
On the water, people can get experience of another kind, taking a short spin around the wharves in the steam launch Puke, learning to sail in the Soling keel boats of the Rangitoto Sailing Centre based in the marina, or involving themselves in Hobson Wharf’s heritage sailing programme on board the Ted Ashby, the Breeze and other museum craft.
Wilson’s vision of a living museum has been ably realised in the perfect maritime setting of Hobson Wharf, where boats still plying the Waitemata offer a convincing link with the present. The museum, which has such indispensible twentieth century cultural additions as a restaurant. 480-seat convention centre and art exhibition space, intends to remain innovative. Among future plans: classical recitals, a candlelit Christmas event and, next March, the opera HMS Pinafore, to be performed, naturally, on the water.
“We sail the ocean blue, and our saucy ship’s a beauty . . .” Now, you can’t get more lively than that.