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Canterbury Museum is planning the Move of the Century

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The consultation began in 2019 with the community of Ōtautahi Christchurch and in 2022 the Canterbury Museum now has a remarkable and exciting vision for the rebuild and renovation of its building for its 2.3 million artifacts and objects.   Following numerous meetings with many groups, its online survey and discussions with interested parties and groups, the Museum’s plans and ambitions for its long-term future through Athfield Architects will undoubtedly impress professional colleagues nationally and internationally, as well the local residents.

Fundamental to the Museum’s vision and intellectual property is that it will address the challenges of being able to display less than 1% of its many collections.  In discussion with Canterbury Museum’s director Anthony Wright, he maintains that in reality it has been, ‘less than 0.01 %  of the collection at any one time, there are 1000 works in storage for every work on display.’

Wright’s detailing of the Museum’s new vision is accompanied by both enthusiasm and the pragmatic detail of the storage of its collections and facilities for staff, the city’s residents and national and international visitors.  ‘The principle for the Museum is that our artefacts and objects are shared with the public.  Its redevelopment will greatly increase the number of objects on display, and to that end, we are through a 20 year inventory of a programme to create a key record of every item in the collection with a photograph.’  

‘In addition to the Museum’s displays and loaning to other institutions a large proportion of the collection will be online, which is another way of sharing it.  The redeveloped Museum will be a bit like Ravenscar House, the information will be accessible to find out more about individual objects through their digital devices. You will be able to point your camera at an object and get all the details you need, so we are able to maximise visual experiences walking through an exhibition while not over stating the information.’

Wright also highlights a significant and welcome response in the Museum’s plans for the security and safety of storage facilities and staff.   ‘Storage for the Museum has moved on.  We are creating storage facilities one hundred times better than current facilities. The principle worry was about flooding, and there will be a five-fold management system. There is a strong constructed outer shell to the basement and within that a base-isolated basement designed to keep water out, and inside, it allows the base-isolation to move.    Water we can manage as much as is humanly possible but we know from our earthquake storage experience that fire and seismic activities are the two main concerns and there are stringent processes around the risks of fire.’  

With the Museum’s building being closed for five years, Wright also details the wider context of planning for ‘the move of the century.’ The benefits of its development for staff and visitors are immense.   ‘The Museum’s visitors wander through its public spaces and this makes up 40% of the museum’s space, but imagine another 60% of space with staff offices, furniture and libraries with 298 collection stores packed to the rafters with our 2.3 million objects.  How do you go about shifting house?’

‘We have a huge team working on it and we have begun box packing items, but not everything can be boxed.  There are things like the blue whale and Edmund Hillary’s snow tractor.  These are huge objects, but then there are other dynamics.  The Museum has the world’s best collection of New Zealand birds’ eggs and they are incredibly fragile but the plan is to move everything out of the Museum from 1 September with everything out by the end of January 2023.’  

‘But there will also be a surprise exhibition over February and March next year, a blockbuster for people to say goodbye to these buildings while major redevelopments happen.  While we are out of the buildings we will continue to operate Quake City and Ravenscar Museum, and a temporary pop-up at a third site with a modest exhibition programme.  Our exhibitions will continue and also education, and our staff will be on a fringe of the city in a warehouse.’

Equally central to the development of the Museum’s future, its principles and strategies, has been its consultation and partnership with Ngāi Tūāhuriri and Ngāi Tahu. ‘Early thinking on the new visitor experience has been shaped around the requirements of the architect’s resolution of existing environmental conditions and our work withNgāi Tūāhuriri and Ngāi Tahu and the Museum from a Te Ao Māori perspective.  The existing exterior is pretty uncompromisingly European colonial, and Ngāi Tūāhuriri and Ngāi Tahu artists are currently involved in working out how they will tell their stories in their own voice in the Museum, something that hasn’t happened in the past.’

‘One of the first things that a visitor will see on arrival at the redeveloped museum is water and pounamu.  Then the first big interior surprise will be the beloved tohora, the biggest blue whale in the world, back on display in the Museum for the first time since it sat in the garden court in the 1990s.  Passing under the belly of the great whale will turn into a full height atrium reaching to the sky which will be the Māori heart of the museum. Named Araiteuru,the space will be home to a contemporary whare a Tahu and the fully conserved and re-erected Tokomaru Bay whare Haute Ananui oTangaroa, actually the third heritage building erected on the museum site back in 1874.‘

‘The public have also asked us not throw the baby out with the bath water, so the Old Christchurch Street and Fred and Myrtle’s Paua Shell House will be back.  On top of that the Museum also has an amazing elephant, completely stuffed and stuck in an attic at present. The doors into that space are not big enough to get it out again but it will be fully restored and back on display – probably for the first time since the late 1890s.’

‘When moving house you do find stuff that you’d forgotten you had. The museum is no different, and amongst the 2.3 million taonga, the curators are constantly finding “unknown” treasures.   If items are mislaid or mislabelled, it can be like looking for a needle in a haystack.  So the quality and accuracy of our digital collection records and object tracking is critically important. For example, recent work cataloguing a large collection of postcards has turned up scenes of Christchurch that no longer exist.  Writer and art historian, Andrew Paul Wood recently wrote a very entertaining and informative article on a Chinese porcelain bowl in the collection that was published in the Journal of English Ceramics -this is just one item in the collection.’

‘There are detailed move plans for every collection store and we have spread-sheets and move plans for what items will come out and in what order, and what will go into temporary storage.   All available staff are working about half the time on this at present and we have also brought in relocation planning specialists.  We have a listing of every space in the museum, with its room number and the person responsible for it.  Then there is a small team supporting that lead.

Our aim in the new museum is not to bore people with lots and lots of objects, but to create exhibition environments in which inspiring and educational stories can be told by the objects – making people think and wonder.’


Canterbury Museum

11 Rolleston Avenue

Open Monday – Sunday 9am – 5pm



  1. The proposed new atrium featuring the Museum's tohorablue whale skeleton suspended over the staircase
  2. Staff preparing objects in the Museum's textile collection for the move.

Canterbury Museum is planning the Move of the Century

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