The Dunedin Museum of Natural Mystery. © DunedinNZ

13 intriguing museums to visit around New Zealand this winter

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Escape the cold and learn more about New Zealand’s history on a visit to one of these fascinating museums around New Zealand. 

1. Tawhiti Museum, Taranaki

One of New Zealand’s best and most innovative private museums, Tawhiti Museum in South Taranaki recreates the region’s history in vivid 4D detail. The museum is a testament to creativity with scale model dioramas and life size figures crafted with incredible realism and painstaking attention to detail. One of the more recent additions is the Traders and Whalers exhibition, created in conjunction with Weta Workshop. Here, you can take a theme park-style ride in a small boat through dark, underground canals for an immersive historical experience. 

2. Airforce Museum, Christchurch

View historic aircraft, interactive displays and immersive exhibitions exploring the stories of New Zealand’s military aviation history at the Air Force Museum of New Zealand in Christchurch. Set at the former airforce base at Wigram, the museum offers free behind-the-scenes tours, museum hunts and a flight simulator that kids will love.

3. Gold-mining experiences, Coromandel

The Coromandel’s recent history is dusted in gold. It’s the reason settlements like Thames and Waihī became boom towns a century and a half ago. At the Gold Mine Experience, feel the earth shake as the restored 19th-century stamper battery pounds to separate out gold. In the underground mineshaft, guides explain how the miners retrieved the gold and describe the dark and dangerous conditions in which they worked. You can also have a crack at gold-panning. A short walk away is the Thames School of Mines. Here’s where those miners learned their trade in the 1880s. A guided tour takes you through classrooms, a laboratory and the museum where maps, instructions, minerals and fossils are on display. Kids will love sifting through the boxes of semi-precious stones at The Rock Shop on site.

4. Vanished World Centre, Duntroon

To find out more about the incredible geology of Otago’s Waitaki district – all of which is part of the 7,200-square-kilometre Waitaki Whitestone Geopark – head to the Vanished World Centre in Duntroon. Here, you can learn from the many informative displays, view some of the fossils that have been extracted from local rock, see samples of minerals and limestone and kids can even have a hands-on experience of excavating their very own fossil.  

5. Southward Car Museum, Paraparaumu

Visit Sir Len Southward’s Car Museum at Ōtaihanga, just north of Paraparaumu. Sir Len’s life was in cars, and the very first car in his collection was a Tin Lizzie, a Model T Ford. It takes pride of place along with over 400 others in one of the world’s largest private collections. Besides the Ford, there are all sorts of exotic and glamorous vehicles including a 1915 Stutz racing car, a Cadillac that belonged to Marlene Dietrich and an armoured saloon complete with bullet holes that belonged to Meye ‘Mickey’ Cohen.

6. Shantytown, West Coast

Visit Shantytown to delve into the West Coast’s frontier heritage. Set up as a village-style museum, Shantytown transports you to the early gold-mining days of the region. Take a gentle stroll through the bush to a gold-panning sluice set in a clearing amongst the trees. A steam train runs trips around the village up to seven times each day, cheerily belching smoke as it putters along the original tram line through the rainforest. Explore the village, with shops, a holographic theatre that tells the stories of the area, a saloon, a pretty church and hospital created in period detail.

7. National Army Museum, Waiouru

If you’re at Ruapehu and the weather is not playing ball, head to Waiouru. New Zealand’s Army Museum is a must-visit – even for people who imagine they have no interest in things military. Our nation’s history is intimately entwined with that of our armed forces: very few families do not have a reason to call one of the many wars their own, due to the sacrifice of an ancestor. The National Army Museum tells the stories of New Zealand’s soldiers and their involvement in military conflicts around the world.  

8. The Dunedin Museum of Natural Mystery

A small, private museum in the central-city home of Bruce Mahalski, The Dunedin Museum of Natural Mystery is an enthralling mishmash of artefacts spread over three rooms of his Victorian villa. Bursting with unusual skulls and bones, rare taxidermy animals, paintings, sculptures and other biological, zoological, botanical and ethnological curiosities, the museum is the result of a lifetime of intrepid collecting.

9. Maritime Museum, Auckland

The New Zealand Maritime Museum, set alongside the bobbing boats on Auckland’s waterfront, is filled with stories of the sea and tales of New Zealand’s extensive maritime heritage. From early Pacific migration to the groundbreaking technology of today’s America’s Cup boats and just about everything in between, the Maritime Museum traces the integral relationships between Kiwis and the ocean. 

10. Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre, Blenheim

Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre is a site of national significance, housing one of the world’s largest exhibitions of World War One aircraft, both static and flyable, as well as rare memorabilia from Sir Peter Jackson’s personal collection. The Knights of the Sky exhibition brings human stories from the Great War to life with dioramas featuring lifelike mannequins and captivating scenes created by local film heroes Weta Workshop and WingNut Films, while Dangerous Skies takes visitors into on a journey through lesser-known stories of World War II, including the only female fighter aces. 

11. Coach House Museum, Feilding

Located in the capacious building that was once Feilding’s Feltex carpet factory, the Coachhouse Museum is home to the largest collection of horse-drawn transport in the Southern Hemisphere. There’s also an impressive collection of iconic green and yellow John Deere farm equipment that has drawn tourists from as far afield as the USA. A dedicated team of volunteers work behind the scenes to create exhibits, industriously crafting native bush and wildlife out of plaster and plastic and various recycled materials. 

12. Classic Car Museum, Nelson

The iconic cone-topped building of the Nelson Classic Car Collection is home to 150 of the most sought-after models of motoring, aptly housed in a former car assembly plant. From Vauxhalls and Triumphs, through to hulking Cadillacs, the collection here is a journey through automotive history. 

13. Te Awahou Nieuwe Stroom 

Te Awahou Nieuwe Stroom in Foxton is the only tri-lingual cultural institution in New Zealand, with interpretative signage throughout the museum and gallery in English, Māori and Dutch. The Dutch connection with New Zealand all began with Abel Tasman, way back in 1642. However, in the early 20th century many Dutch immigrants were forced to spread out around the country so they integrated with New Zealand society and didn’t congregate in one region. Part of the purpose of Te Awahou Nieuwe Stroom is as a Dutch connection centre, designed to bring these disparate communities back together. The museum is created to appeal to all ages, with exhibits at different levels for children to discover. There are doors to open, Dutch spices to smell, things to touch – a full multi-sensory experience. 

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