Celebrating our 22nd Birthday

Wednesday, August 19, 2015
The Maritime Museum, just prior to opening in 1993 - NZ Maritime Museum Archives


This week marks the museum’s 22nd birthday here on Hobson Wharf, after the Right Hon. Jim Bolger Prime Minister of New Zealand cut a ceremonial ribbon on 19 August, 1993. We then opened our doors to the first members of the public two days later, on Saturday 21 August 1993.

In this blog, Vincent Lipanovich, Museum Director, gives his thoughts on his recent arrival to Auckland’s waterfront and looks towards the future:

“A birthday is always a good time to reflect, and as I share a birthday month with the New Zealand Maritime Museum, I have found myself thinking on the way a Museum can engage someone in stories, and reveal their personal connections to a wider historical and national context. While I’ve always felt this to be true of all good museums, I’ve been surprised how much it is true for all of us, and me personally, at the New Zealand Maritime Museum.

 I must confess – I have never been a sailor, nor have I had any direct involvement in the sea, apart from swimming in it occasionally. So, you might ask, what on earth drew me to the New Zealand Maritime Museum, and what is there here that relates to me? I feel this is a question that many of our first time and potential visitors might ask themselves – I’m not a yachtie, I’ve never been to sea, why would I be interested in a Maritime Museum? This is a fair question, but I think it is one that the Museum can answer easily – in New Zealand, we are ALL touched by the sea, and even today, our lives are shaped by it in ways that we never consider, but that are vital to our day to day activities.

Vincent Lipanovich - photo credit - Photo: RNZ / Kim Baker Wilson

Vincent Lipanovich - Museum Director

If you are a New Zealander with a long family history in this land, your ancestors will almost certainly arrived here by sea, often through many perils. The Museum’s Landfalls and New Beginnings galleries attempt to tell these stories – from the great Pacific migrations to the islands that now form the nations of the Pacific, and the migration to Aotearoa in what is now thought to be the 12th or 13th centuries, through to the early contact of Europeans on these shores and their own 19th century migration, up the last great sea migration to New Zealand in the 1950s. This is a story that many of us can relate to as one that either we or our families experienced, and it applies to people who have immigrated to New Zealand from all parts of the globe. Even today, when those coming to New Zealand travel by air rather than ship, these stories shape the history of this country.

Immigration is however only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the story of us and the sea in Aotearoa New Zealand. Today, our interaction with our marine environment is generally via trade and industry, even if we are never aware of it. New Zealand is the most remote country in the OECD, and our trade by sea is vital and forms the overwhelming majority of our imports and exports – in 2014, a staggering 99.7% of New Zealand exports and imports travelled by sea – only 0.3% by air. This of course is not a new phenomenon – traders in this country have relied on sea routes for trade from the very beginning, and the search for the most efficient methods of doing this are now in their second century. Maori were well aware of the importance of trade by water, and much contact between iwi was via the sea and waterways of Aotearoa. Maori were also the first New Zealand based national and international traders, using waka and whaleboats to bring timber, firewood and produce to the new settlements. In 1852 traditional craft brought over 1,500 tonnes of goods for sale in Auckland. Next came the so-called ‘schooner mania’, when iwi and hapu, and some individuals, invested in schooners, keeping European shipbuilders busy. The pride of our heritage fleet, the Ted Ashby, is a reconstruction of just such a costal and river trader.  By the 1860’s much sail had given way to steam, with international shipping lines setting up business in New Zealand permanently, with our first home grown line, The New Zealand Shipping Company, opening in 1873. Steam gave way to oil in the 20th century, and there was another boom in trade after the advent of containerisation in the 1950s, with the modern industry taking the shape we are familiar with today. Even if you go your whole life in New Zealand without laying eyes on the sea, unlikely as that is in our island county, you will be intimately affected by the ocean through New Zealand’s trade routes.

The Museum today

The sea can affect us in smaller and more everyday sorts of ways. As well as an international highway, the sea can be the equivalent of the footpath outside your house, taking us to and from our day to day activities. For Maori and early European settlers, the sea, the beach, and our fresh water rivers were by far the most efficient ways to move around a sometime mountainous country largely covered by forest and bush. In our own beautiful Waitematā Harbour, for much of its history the water has been the best and quickest way to travel from place to place, with numbers traveling by sea really only taking a major hit after the completion of the Harbour Bridge in 1959. Even so, thousands every day – in Auckland and around the country – take the ferry to work and for leisure, with no more thought than they would put into taking a bus.

The sea is also a vital and much overlooked (not to mention over fished) source of food, whether this takes the form of traditional practices around the gathering of kai moana to industrial fishing fleets who operate on a massive scale, still docking into the heart of the waterfront at the North Wharf. Sailor or not, every time you pick up a nice piece of snapper at the supermarket, you reinforce your connection to the ocean.

Fishing brings us neatly to the activity in which we are perhaps most aware of our connection to the sea – recreation. This, while true of many places, is particularly true of New Zealand – the link between the sea and fun and relaxation is so strong to us it almost approaches cliché. It is an oft quoted statistic, including by Tourism New Zealand, that Auckland has more boats per capita than any other city in the world, and New Zealand has 120 yacht clubs nationwide with a total membership of over 300,000 people. If you’re not a boatie, then perhaps you’re part of the grand old tradition of the New Zealand bach, or if you’re from Otago or Southland, the grand old tradition of the New Zealand crib, and have headed off to the same place by the sea with the family every holiday weekend in living memory. If this doesn’t apply to you either, you’ve almost certainly visited the beach for swimming, picnicking or walking – in a country with 16,000 kilometres of coastline, it’s almost unavoidable.

So, returning to my original question – why would I be interested in visiting a Maritime Museum? In short, because we tell your story – you might not be aware of it day to day, but the sea and our relationship to it is one of the defining interactions in our lives, both in grandiose national identity terms, and in day to day, popping down to the shops or heading to the beach for the weekend terms as well. Our galleries tell all these stories, and many that I haven’t mentioned, and they’re well worth exploring."