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The sweet spot: five Wellington museums and galleries to entertain both kids and grown-ups

By Samuel 7 Jun 2019

Museums and art galleries can save or ruin family holidays. Take your kids to the wrong gallery and you can feel watched and patronised and the kids will get bored and unruly. Spend too long in a museum that caters mostly for kids and the parents can be sucked of their energy and fossilize into tourist zombies. Ahh but the magic of that sweet spot, a genuinely entertaining institution that welcomes children, engages with adults and absorbs the whole family. It’s a priceless rarity but one that Wellington has in spades. These five have hit that sweet spot for me time and again.


Wellington Museum

Somewhat overshadowed by its giant neighbour (more on Te Papa later) the Wellington Museum is a gem. It has the feeling of a private museum of curiosities that you might find in a London back street. Me and my kids usually head straight for the top floor which feels like a set from Harry Potter. Tesla Coils, wonky old stuffed lions (from Wellington Zoo) and movie memorabilia, not just from Peter Jackson but more obscure and distinctly Wellington films like What We Do In The Shadows create an esoteric atmosphere that enchants me and my kids.

So much more fun that the kind of touch screen, interactive exhibits that seem the norm these days. Sometimes the small, slightly more bizarre spots can have the broadest appeal. I can spend hours just prodding away at Tesla’s plasma orb. I like to imagine Nikolai Tesla himself pondering the possibilities of electricity in a creeky old attic just like this one.

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Southward Car Museum on the Kāpiti Coast

Southward Car Museum

There is something absurd about the Southward Car Museum. The grand gates and parking for a million people. The huge, purpose built modernist structure reminds of the Thunderbirds HQ... it doesn’t quite make sense rising up from the otherwise sedate environs of the Kāpiti Coast. And the collection itself is insane. How did Len and Vera Southward end up with Mickey Cohen’s cadillac? Or any of the other thousand odd vehicles for that matter.

Even if you couldn’t care less about cars there’s enough weird factor here to entertain everyone; from futurist failures like the Dolorean, to psychedelic Indian trucks or the creepy egg car from Sleeper. Plus all the big fancy fast things if you’re that way inclined.

Southward Car Museum is an essential part of a weekend on the Kāpiti Coast or a quick day trip from the city.

The Dowse

The family merits of The Dowse are apparent before you even get inside. The giant robot water feature [Fallen Robot by artist Ronnie van Hout] is a must for any intrepid child. Oh how you’ll try to show your children the Lynley Dodd plaque “Hairy Maclary is from Lower Hutt kids, look at this.” and oh how they will completely ignore you for the robot. Such is the way of things.

Once inside you can have your revenge by leaving them in one of kid zones (the giant blue building block room is a must) and then as you abandon your progeny you can enjoy one of New Zealand’s most unique and well respected art galleries. Whilst they may have a slight bent towards the folk and craft side of art, The Dowse doesn’t shy away from well curated contemporary and conceptual shows. It’s also pretty close to my favourite cheap Wellington eats; Pandan. The best Malaysian in town, I assure you.

Te Papa

The big daddy. The National Museum of New Zealand and the National Gallery. They have all the things. Possibly the biggest draw is the gross giant squid [now on display in Te Papa's new nature exhibition, Te Taiao Nature]. A kraken of the deep. A proud and handsome squishy beast. Your kids will want to see the squid, and the whale bones and the learning centres, but there is also a truly excellent art collection and also moving treasures from Māori and Pasifika history that are part of the fabric of New Zealand and the South Pacific.

The most powerful place in Te Papa is Te Hau ki Turanga, the oldest surviving carved wharenui (meeting house) stolen from the Rongowhakaata people in 1867. The iwi are now very much involved in the future of this remarkable building. One of the greatest examples of Māori carving it is not just a beautiful building but also a place to think about your ancestors and also acknowledge and face up to the injustices of New Zealand’s colonial era. A place for visitors young and old to have a quiet moment of reflection. There are plans for the wharenui to be returned to Gisborne and it’s rightful owners so whilst it is still in Te Papa it is not to be missed. I have visited the wharenui many times and I never fail to feel moved by its mana.

City Gallery Wellington

Okay, so I guess City Gallery Wellington isn’t always entirely family friendly. At the cutting edge of modern and contemporary art in New Zealand, City Gallery is always challenging and thoughtful and mostly fun for the whole family (they’ll let you know if the content is perchance a touch ribald).

The gallery's school holiday children’s programmes are legendary and there is a dedicated learning area where kids can get stuck in and be inspired to make some art themselves. Where Cuba Street meets the CBD in Civic Square, the City Gallery, to me at least, is the cultural and geographic heart of Wellington.

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