The Auckland War Memorial Museum

23 November 2015 / Published in News & Stories

This story originally appeared in the New Zealand Herald as part of the 175th Auckland Anniversary celebrations with ASB and Auckland Council.

First, they were comrades in arms. Then Hugh Grierson, Kenneth Aimer and Keith Draffin banded together as architects of a "touchstone of remembrance" for fellow servicemen — including their own brothers — who lost their lives in the Great War.

A worldwide competition was launched in 1921 to find the best design for a building to stand on the edge of the crater of Pukekawa — the "hill of bitter memories" — in Auckland Domain. It would serve as a war memorial and a grand museum for the city.

The 74 entries came from England, Canada, Australia, India and the United States. Among four designs from New Zealand was an elaborately detailed Greek revival building by three young Auckland architects — Grierson, Aimer and Draffin — who would ultimately collect the 650 first prize.

The judges were not only impressed by the trio's proposal but felt it appropriate that all three men were "ex-diggers".

Hugh Grierson fought with the New Zealand Rifle Brigade in France; his brother Walter was killed in action in Gallipoli in May 1915.

Kenneth Aimer, with the 2nd Auckland Battalion, was wounded at Passchendaele and sent home in 1917. He lost a brother, George, a pilot with the Royal Flying Corps, in an air accident in England.

Keith Draffin started his long war service with the NZ Field Engineers in Gallipoli and was one of the last men to leave Anzac Cove when it was evacuated. He then fought in France, earning the Military Cross for gallantry in the field.

After the war, Grierson and Draffin were given leave on full military pay to attend the Architectural Association in London. Back in Auckland, they joined forces with Aimer to design "a noble and dignified building".

The Auckland War Memorial Museum answered the call of many. Thomas Cheeseman led the search for a new home for the cramped Auckland Museum. Cheeseman, a botanist with a strong knowledge of Maori art and history, had been curator of the museum since 1852 when it existed in a two-roomed farm cottage in Grafton — one room for collections, the other for the curator.

Three times the museum was rehoused in city buildings, outgrowing its premises as it thrived. In 1920, the Auckland Institute and Museum committee found the ideal building site of "2 acres, 3 roods and 19 perches" in the Auckland Domain, to be leased from the city for 1 a year. Then it was a matter of finding the funds — around 250,000 — for a memorable building overlooking the city and Waitemata Harbour.

Aucklanders were also crying out for a memorial to remember the 18,166 New Zealanders who had died in World War I; the Returned Servicemen's Association accepted the Auckland Institute and Museum's offer to use the site to create a war memorial museum; the Domain was already hugely significant to Maori, as a memorial to those who died in the 1820s musket wars.

Sadly, Cheeseman never saw his majestic museum on the hill. After half a century as curator, he died in 1923 — six years before the heavy museum doors would finally swing open. Yorkshireman Gilbert Archey took over as the new curator.

Inspired by the Acropolis, the architects designed a neo-classical style monument, with eight Doric columns replicated from the Parthenon. They also included a Court of Honour and Cenotaph below the museum entry. The museum holds a collection of the working plans, intricately drawn on linen by Draffin.

Before the builders, Hansford and Mills Construction, began work, changes were made to the original plans — the grand entrance hall was opened to the full height of the building and the Maori court moved to a central position on the ground floor.

The meeting house, Hotunui, was placed on the museum's central axis. Carved as a wedding gift from the Ngati Awa iwi to Ngati Maru, in Thames, Hotunui was handed to the museum for safekeeping in 1924.

The museum's construction wasn't without controversy. Aucklanders questioned the choice of stone used for the museum's exterior. Portland stone, a creamy-white English limestone quarried in the Isle of Wight, was chosen over rock from Sydney and even local quarries. It was rare for New Zealand buildings to use stone from the opposite side of the globe but Aimer called it "the most durable free-working limestone known". Sicilian white marble was chosen over its New Zealand equivalent for the interior walls of the Hall of Memories, engraved with the names of 7297 Aucklanders who died in the Great War.

The Cenotaph also stood at the centre of a storm. When the museum committee decided there wasn't enough money to proceed, the RSA was incensed; its Auckland president, Lieutenant-Colonel T. H. Dawson, charging the museum's committee with losing sight of war memorial features in their excitement to create a great museum.

"Here, with a cenotaph before the building, would be an ideal place for the observance of Anzac Day for all time and with all the glory and solemnity demanded. Here, 70,000 or 80,000 people could easily be accommodated. At least the association can protest against the museum being opened until its memorial character has been given more tangible expression," he was reported to say in the Herald.

A new fundraising drive raised almost 6000 for the 10m high Cenotaph to be built in time for the official opening of the museum on November 28, 1929. On completion, the museum project had raised 231,614 through public and government donations; the largest commercial donation, 50,000, was from the Auckland Savings Bank.

Governor-General Sir Charles Fergusson presided over the opening ceremony, knocking on the museum's front doors with a carved wooden mere presented to him by the architects. The Archbishop of New Zealand, Walter Averill, consecrated the Cenotaph in the Court of Honour before a gathering of around 10,000 — among them Maori chiefs, returned servicemen and women and next-of-kin of those lost.

In 1946, the Mayor of Auckland, Sir John Allum, proposed extending the museum to commemorate the 4702 Aucklanders lost in World War II, as well as those killed in the New Zealand Land Wars and the Anglo-Boer Wars. Draffin and his son Rodney created a semi-circular extension at the southern end of the building, completed in 1960.

Since then, almost every gallery space has been altered. A 12-year project completed in 2006 gave the museum a major modernisation, better space for collections and public use and a glass and copper dome at the top of the six storeys.

Future plans include enhancing Te Korahi Maori, the Maori dimension of the museum and increasing public access to taonga, boosting the number of collections on display or available digitally and upholding the museum's role as a war memorial.

While not everyone approved of the imported Portland stone that cloaked the museum, one special slab carried a degree of mana.

In 1926, the Herald reported the arrival on the Ruahine of an "ancient" half-ton slab, quarried in the Isle of Wight 250 years before for the use of Sir Christopher Wren - the designer of St Paul's Cathedral and one of Britain's most distinguished architects. The slab, bearing the mark of the quarry, was believed to have been wanted for St Paul's but was never used.

It now sits at the bottom of the museum's northwest stairwell, burnished by the marks of fingertips that have traced its surface for more than 80 years.


More articles from ASB