History of Whangarei Museum & Exhibition Centre

Museums are great story tellers. Here is the story of how our current museum and it’s collections came to be.


Gifts of objects to the Whangarei Borough Council date back to early 1900. However display of such objects was not possible until 1903, when some specimen cases were permitted in the reading room of the Public Library. Over the years a number of photographs of "Borough identities" were collected along with war trophies, "a case or two of fine birds", kauri gum, shells and petrified wood.


By 1934, the Whangarei Museum occupied a room in the Municipal building on Bank Street, and William McKenzie Fraser was appointed as the Curator. Talk of expanding the collection is recorded in Council minutes "to ensure that its (Whangarei’s) museum receive as many materials as possible of the district’s curios, history, art, resources and priceless things bequeathed." It was suggested that the new library might include a museum. This did not happen. By 1939, there were complaints about the neglected state of the museum-no curator or care, no acknowledgement of gifts and curios on the floor.


In December 1940, the Whangarei Borough Council appointed Miss E.K. Pickmere as Museum Curator for an honorarium of 50 pounds. Displays were arranged in the municipal building and lectures for school children were begun. Steadily the dilapidated collection moved away from being a dirty, musty collection of objects with no connected story.


A separate museum building to house the collection did not find favour with Councils of the day. In 1951 the museum collection was put into storage in the basement of the old library cottages (x3) in Cafler Park; the space it formerly occupied being turned into offices.


The floods of 1956 threatened the museum collection, so it was moved to the Plaisted property in Rust Lane. This house had been acquired by the Borough for the museum and renovated at considerable cost. During this time the Library Committee was responsible for the museum. In exchange for a small annual grant assistance and advice was received from the Auckland Institute and Museum.


In April 1960 the Matakohe Transport Preservation League approached the Whangarei Borough Council over the disposal of their old time transport collection. While the Council was sympathetic towards the notion of keeping the collection in Northland, it felt financing was beyond them, and success would be more likely in a larger centre. That collection became the nucleus of MOTAT in Auckland.


Part-time Curator Mrs Mardon achieved notable increases in visitor numbers and a record of success. Her work was continued by Mr J Donnelly whose interest in anthropology led to permanent and temporary displays of local interest and collections which were received at a faster rate than they could be "authenticated, reconditioned, labeled and catalogued."


Letter from J Donnelly to KBA dated 17 July 1968 advises KBA collection were presently held in the Museum store at Odlins Building.


By 1967 Plaisted House was labeled a ‘fire hazard.’ In 1973, the City Council resolved that the museum be placed in recess, exhibits were again stored, some privately and others in the building on the corner of Dent and James St near the Hatea River. Plaisted House was demolished to make way for the new Civic Centre.


Increasingly the legislated amount paid to the Auckland Museum was seen as a financial burden, and became the impetus for Northland’s own museum. In 1967 a Northern Museums Trust was mooted and got underway with support throughout the north. By 1970 the Northland Regional Museum Society was founded and incorporated, but with no premises.


In February 1973, the Northland Regional Museum Society finalised purchase of the 56 acre Clarke property from Basil Clarke, the 3rd generation of a Scottish immigrant family. The Clarke’s homestead ‘Glorat’ is an authentic kauri villa listed with the NZ Historic Places Trust, still on site as a visitor attraction today. Three rooms of Glorat were opened to the public as the first museum in 1976.


A separate display building was seen as an immediate necessity and local engineer Don Dunning was engaged. Dunning’s plans featuring the wagon shaped building and curved roof were made public in September 1974. Finally a fundraising campaign led by R.K. Trimmer was successful in providing sufficient funds for building to take place. At the same time the name Heritage Park was first associated with the site.


The foundation stone for the new building was laid in July 1979, by the Honourable D.H. Hyett, Minster of Internal Affairs. The building was completed and the Gallery opened in March 1984.


Documentation of the District Council collection has been gradually incorporated into the system set up in 1983 for the Northland Regional Museum. Amongst the noted collections today are approximately 2000 items on loan from the Whangarei District Council, including the 900 object William McKenzie Fraser and Douglas Family collections. In total the Exhibition centre houses approximately 20,000 items.


Account written from the minutes of the Whangarei Borough and City Councils, minutes of the Northland Regional Museum, other records at Whangarei Museum and press coverage mainly from the Northern Advocate.


Live Days were originally inspired by long time stalwarts of the park the late Dick Stirling, Vern Fairbrother and Jum Hill. Their passion was to keep alive the skills of early farmers and the history of the timber industry in the Whangarei District. Enthusiastically they set about establishing teams of Clydesdale horses and bullocks, rebuilt wagons, and setup displays such as milking a cow in a hand-bale, hay-making with a horse, stacker and stationary hay baler, kauri log pulling. The 25ha park, farm paddocks and ‘Glorat’ the original 1886 homestead of Dr Clarke and 3 generations of descendents made an ideal setting for retelling history. Glorat today is listed as a Category 2 building with New Zealand Historic Places Trust.


2011 Alterations carried out and new Kiwi house opened and museum name changed to Kiwi North.