Encounter rare objects and special exhibitions as we share the cultural and natural stories of Otago, New Zealand and the world.
Seven galleries are yours to explore, allowing you to discover extraordinary treasures and inspirational exhibits.
- Enjoy the special stories of Southern New Zealand woven though Tangata Whenua and Southern Land, Southern People.
- Meet Otago’s special wildlife in the Nature Galleries and discover Otago’s proud shipping past in the Maritime Gallery.
- In People of the World and Pacific Cultures, unearth cultural treasures and everyday items, which together tell the stories of people and cultures from around the globe.
- The Victorian-inspired Animal Attic is a ‘museum within the Museum’, featuring nearly 3,000 historical specimens.
Discovery World Tropical Forest is the perfect choice for a day of family fun. Enjoy a spectacular live butterfly experience in the Tropical Forest and switch on to science in our interactive Discovery World.
Established in 1868, the Museum’s proud history has brought it to a vibrant present. A succession of directors and generations of benefactors have focused their ambitions on building rich collections from all over the world, as well as grand environments to house them. Today, the Otago Museum is Dunedin’s most visited attraction, offering you an excellent Museum experience.
With a significant collection of rocks and minerals as its foundation objects, the Museum first opened to the public in 1868 – but not at its current location. For nearly ten years, the Museum was based south of the Octagon, in the area known as the Exchange.
The collection began to grow, and it soon became clear that a larger, purpose-built site was needed. The site at the existing address – 419 Great King Street – was selected, with the foundation laid in December 1874. In August of 1877, the new building was opened. Designed by architect David Ross, the 1877 building has been retained as part of the Museum as it stands today – the original entrance can still be seen on Great King Street.
1877 was a milestone year for another reason as well – the management of the Museum was handed wholly to the University. It was to remain vested in the University for almost 80 years, becoming a highly regarded teaching museum and housing various University departments.
The first substantial addition to the original Museum building was the Hocken Wing, named for Thomas Morland Hocken. Opened in 1910, it housed the collection that would later form the basis of the Hocken library collection. The Hocken Wing was designed by John Burnside to compliment the design of the existing building.
Another new wing, named for benefactor Willi Fels and designed by Edmund Anscombe, was opened in 1930. Today, the Fels Wing houses the People of the World and Tangata Whenua Galleries. The Centennial Wing opened in 1963, and today houses the Pacific Cultures and Nature Galleries. With all of these separate developments, the Museum had grown to several times its original floor area – with a confusing layout of multiple connected wings.
A multi-stage development in the 1990s and 2000s largely resolved this, with the addition of architect Ted McCoy’s spectacular integrating central Atrium. Extra spaces were added as part of the same project, which culminated in the opening of the 1,200m2 Southern Land, Southern People Gallery.
In 2007, a major addition was made to the visitor experience with the opening of the Tropical Forest, an immersive butterfly rainforest experience.
Today, the Museum building is classified by the Historic Places Trust as a Category 1 historic place.
Our collection is incredibly strong – it is one of the most significant museum collections in New Zealand. This is largely due to generous benefactors and judicious acquisition strategies.
Many of our key benefactors are part of the same family. Among them, German-born businessman Willi Fels had an especially long and impactful relationship with the Museum. He contributed many items personally, as well as establishing a purchasing fund, facilitating acquisitions made by others, and encouraging others to pass on valuable items. Fels also coordinated the fundraising efforts for the building of the wing ultimately named in his honour.
With the first three Otago Museum curators all being prominent scientists, the Otago Museum was destined to make a mark as a natural science museum.
Frederick Wollaston Hutton (Curator 1873–1879), formerly the Otago Provincial Geologist, worked hard to bring the collections together.
His successor, Thomas Jeffery Parker, was an outstanding researcher and one of New Zealand’s greatest biologists. During his tenure (1880–1897) he organised the natural history specimens along Darwinian lines and articulated many of the skeletons still on display in the Animal Attic. The humanities collections were started during Parker’s time, prompted by the donation of the Egyptian mummy.
Spanning the 19th and 20th centuries was Professor William Benham, a scientist of world renown, who was appointed Curator in 1898. He held the position for 39 years, while also holding the University of Otago Chair of Biology. Benham was knighted for his contribution to science and education in 1939.
The first New Zealand born leader of the Museum was Henry Devenish Skinner, who was first appointed in 1937. Skinner was a pioneer in the field of anthropology in New Zealand and is considered by many to have inaugurated Pacific anthropology. While Skinner’s predecessors had focused primarily on natural science collections, Skinner skilfully built the humanities collections, working closely with friend and major benefactor Willi Fels.
In 1957, Raymond Forster ushered in a period of intense research in the biological sciences at the Museum as its new director. Forster became a world authority on the biology and classification of spiders and brought together a significant arachnid collection, with representative species from around the world.
Richard Cassels became director after Forster in 1987 and began a process of focusing the Museum on its responsibilities to the wider community. During Cassels’ time as director, the Museum Trust Board made a commitment to the establishment of a science centre.
Shimrath Paul was appointed director in 1995, after joining the team in 1990 to set up the Museum’s science centre (Discovery World). Paul oversaw a comprehensive multi-stage redevelopment, which, along with a renewed focus on visitor experience, transformed the Museum into a hub for the local community and a world-class visitor attraction. The redevelopment also addressed collection storage, which now reflects international best practice. Under Paul’s leadership, the Museum’s Tropical Forest, a three-level indoor butterfly rainforest experience, was also completed in 2007. During Paul's tenure, visitor numbers increased from around 250,000 per annum, peaking at over 600,000.
The Otago Museum has flourished through a local tradition of community philanthropy. Past benefactors have aided significantly in bringing bold visions for the Museum’s collection development to bear, acquiring treasured objects and specimens from around the globe.
The legacy of philanthropy has also included raising and donating funds – for extending the Museum buildings, research, collection acquisitions, professional development and more.