The best museums in Dunedin and Ōamaru
Dunedin may be synonymous with rowdy students, but he’s as proud of his past as of the bright young minds who will help determine his future.
As the historic heart of Otago, it’s only fitting that the city is home to several museums, many of which rival – if not eclipse – the best of our great cities.
Seaside Ōamaru, on the other hand, has a sort of living museum in the form of its well-preserved Victorian compound, as well as some genuine characteristic museums.
If you’re ready to broaden your mind on your next visit, be sure to try at least one of these excellent museums.
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Museum of natural mysteries
Reminiscent of Dr Johnson’s home in London, this private museum is full of weird and wonderful artifacts collected by local artist Bruce Mahalski during the adventure that has clearly been his life.
Occupying three rooms in his downtown villa, the collection includes skulls, bones, fossils, biological curiosities, ethnological art, bone sculptures and animal paintings made by Mahalski himself. There’s even a Gloriavale uniform and a piece of wood from what is said to be England’s most haunted house.
The signs help tell the intriguing stories behind the pieces, and Mahalski is more than happy to elaborate. If you have even a passing interest in the mysteries of the natural and supernatural worlds, you will be bound to be intrigued.
Moa bones, an ancient Egyptian mummy and a living tropical forest teeming with a waterfall, exotic butterflies, giant stick insects, tarantulas, turtles and a ‘sky bridge’ are among the estimated 1.5 million of delicacies to discover at the Otago Museum.
The Tūhura Science Center is the only bicultural science center in the world, combining the science, art and creative history of Kāi Tahu. If that’s not enough to convince you that this is no ordinary museum, maybe the three-story indoor slide and bicycle skeleton will. Use laser beams to uncover the stories behind the images that spark your interest in the Beautiful Science Gallery, and zoom in on the stars, constellations and planets that can be seen in the Dunedin night sky during a tour of the planetarium.
Toitū Otago Settlers Museum
Spanning nearly two blocks, this over 120-year-old museum tells the stories of the people who helped make Otago – and New Zealand – what it is today.
The more than 100,000 objects highlight the culture, fashion, art and transportation of the area from the Maori settlement to the present day.
The Smith Gallery, where portraits of early settlers hang from floor to ceiling, is a powerful visual tribute to the pioneers of the region, with other highlights including the collection of vintage dresses and handcrafted furniture from the 19th century. and twentieth centuries. Interactive exhibits such as a reconstructed settler’s house, a ship’s cabin, and the Chinese-style garden help bring all of this fascinating history to life.
Olveston Historic House
Filled with fancy antique furniture and artwork from around the world, Olverston is a time capsule in the form of what looks like a giant gingerbread house.
Little has changed in the Edwardian mansion – built for one of Dunedin’s foremost businessmen, philanthropists, and collectors – since it was occupied as a family home between 1906 and 1966. Its many treasures include 18th and 19th century Japanese weapons, Chinese jade and ceramics, and paintings by Frances Hodgkins and Grace Joel.
Guided tours of the house take an hour, but you will need more time if you want to explore the ‘garden of national significance’ in which it is located. What you absolutely should do.
Town of Whitestone
This 1882 attic in the heart of the Victorian walls of Ōamaru will take you back to its Victorian heyday.
Stroll through a replica of the Victorian streetscape, snap your photo toast at a Victorian table, learn a thing or two about the Victorian education system in the school, and ride the penny carousel.
Costumed guides are informative without being intrusive, and many guests enjoy looting the costume equipment themselves (in some cases just for the sake of creating humorous photographs). Old-school games such as bowling and croquet will keep you entertained as well, as will the guide’s tales of Ōamaru’s sometimes sketchy past.
Unlike most museums which focus resolutely on the past, this one imagines an alternate reality where the past, present and future converge.
Steampunk culture envisions what the world might be like if the Industrial Revolution never happened and the power of steam reigned supreme. The concept gave birth to some truly ingenious creations, many of which are rightly on display in this former grain house in the so-called ‘steampunk capital of the world’. Think of a steam locomotive spewing out flames and smoke at the right time, and heavy retro-futuristic contraptions of copper, gears, pipes and gas cylinders.
There are also very punk rock sculptures, and projects in various stages of “steampunking”, like a giant motorcycle and an “ethertractor”. With hundreds of multi-colored LED lights appearing to extend into infinity, “The Portal,” meanwhile, is quite the trip. You won’t – and shouldn’t – believe your eyes.
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