A Devonport Renaissance? 1: The New Naval Museum

Posted by on Oct 13, 2010 | Leave a Comment

In May 2010, 28 years after it opened, the Navy Museum at Spring Street closed the doors to the public for the final time.

For the following five months, exhibition designers, installers and Navy Museum staff prepared for the Open Day at Torpedo Bay, set for 9th October 2010. On this day, the Torpedo Bay Navy Museum was open to the public for the first time and over 2600 people took the opportunity to view the exhibitions. The previous evening, Prime Minister John Key, the Minister of Defence, Admiral Parr and 250 other guests were present as Mr Key officially opened the museum.

The Speculator decided it might be prudent to avoid the madding crowd of the Open Day, and instead visited the museum a couple of times earlier this week. Harbouring nascent fears that it may consist of nothing more than a few rusty medals, half an ancient anchor and some fading black and white photos of a couple of miserable-looking huts near Waiouru that apparently constituted HMNZS Irirangi, The Speculator can cheerfully report to his socks being blown off. Short of being located on the decks of HMNZS Achilles, this is exactly what a naval museum should be.

Torpedo Bay or Te haukapua itself is a site of exceptional significance, and features prominently in Maori history.  Tamatekapua, the captain of the Arawa canoe, and others in the Great fleet were guided by the light and smoke from the emerging of Rangitoto from the sea. It was here that the Tainui and the Arawa canoes met. The Speculator has made the point before, but it strikes one as incredible that this historical moment is not better known, or marked in Torpedo Bay.

It is said in Maori legend that Tamatekapua made improper advances to Whakaotirangi, who was Hoturoa’s (captain of the Tainui) first wife. This started a fierce battle. Tamatekapua was badly wounded and retreated to Rangitoto where he cut his feet on the sharp scoria. He bled so much from his cuts and wounds that the rocks were stained red (hence the name Te Rangi i totongia a Tamatekapua (The blood of Tamatekapua)).

With the arrival of the Pakeha, Torpedo Bay became an important part of Auckland’s early defence system as well as having been continuously occupied by New Zealand military forces since 1880. Torpedo Bay is also the most substantial and intact 19th century mining base to survive in New Zealand. Relocating the Museum to Torpedo Bay has seen the Museum celebrate and add the newest chapter to the site’s extraordinary heritage, with the original 1896 buildings being redeveloped to accommodate the new Museum. Surrounded by water on one side and the military fortifications of North Head on the other, a more perfect location could hardly be found.

One of the key tenets behind the design of the museum appears to be the retelling of history as stories about human endeavour, with the artefacts as prompts. And where those artefacts are missing or for practical reasons cannot be displayed, strenuous efforts have been made to re-create them. A chat with Operations Manager Cliff Heywood confirms that this was indeed the intention behind the design. “We conducted a lot of market research on what people wanted to see, and overwhelmingly, it was stories about people’s experiences on ships.” The navy museum thus retells those human stories; and those stories are of comradeship, courage and sacrifice; archetypal stories that adults  appreciate, and that our kids can instinctively understand.

The museum has therefore reversed the normal procedure of lumping piles of artefacts together in a room, and instead created stories with the artefacts it has, and built or re-created components of these stories that no longer exist.

A case in point; New Zealand’s most famous naval contribution in WWII was at the Battle of River Plate. The battle, as with the other significant engagements of NZ’s naval history, is presented as a story, with its own section within the museum. One of the things I have always wanted to see was a picture of the relative size of the shells the combatants fired at each other during this battle; because therein lies a simple and eloquent summary of the nature of the battle – three (Allied) Davids against one (German) Goliath. And what should I find in the River Plate display?


The German Graf Spee's shell is on the left; The Achilles' on the extreme right

That, together with some extraordinary models of the ships involved, key facts and interviews with sailors, brings the story of the battle to life in a way I have never experienced. This is a refreshing change from the glorification of war that one still finds in so many museums, where the focus too often seems to be on equipment, medals and uniforms and invariably accompanied by the sounds of screaming engines and machine gun fire on poor quality speaker systems.

In fact, the museum has opted for a policy of “less is more.” Around only 580 items are on display in the museum; the collection totals over half a million. With its modern design, use of a variety of media to communicate the stories and more intimate approach, this is a museum that breaks the mold and provides us with a story of our shared history that we can all appreciate, relate to and most importantly, take away with us.

So, aside from the stories, what kind of juicy artefacts does the museum possess? The Speculator’s list of favourites are as follows;


  • The original 5.5 inch main armament of the Japanese sub I1 – rammed and sunk by the New Zealand minesweepers Moa and the Kiwi. Again, the extent to which these two ships were outgunned by the submarine is brought home by the size of this weapon (see gallery below)
  • Incredibly detailed large scale models of the German pocket battleship Graf Spee and the HMNZS Achilles, as well as many other ships (see gallery below)
  • Four walls of photos of those who have died in the course of serving in the navy, including a touching photo of Able Seaman Solomon, killed recently in an accident while serving on the HMNZS Canterbury.
  • An image of the damaged chromosome of a sailor exposed to a nuclear test, next to a photo of a normal set of chromosomes
  • The original scab of steel blown from one of the turrets aboard HMS New Zealand during the Battle of Jutland (see gallery below)

And don’t forget that one of the original gun turrets from Achilles is still located down at the entrance to the naval base; now that would be some addition to the museum’s collection!

Two minor issues I might point out. The first is the paucity of parking (no surprises that might be an issue in Devonport huh?). However, if Fullers do run a ferry to the Torpedo Bay wharf, this will provide an important alternative. The second is the low audio volume of some of the interviews with the veterans that are featured in some of the exhibitions. The Battle of the River Plate exhibition features an extraordinary interview with a couple of the men on the HMNZS Achilles. However, the ambient noise of the museum makes it largely inaudible. Nevertheless, these are small quibbles, and Cliff was aware of the problem. As a celebration of Devonport’s and New Zealand’s heritage, this museum has raised the bar in Auckland.

“We will look at other opportunities around the country for the public of New Zealand to get to know their Navy better” commented Captain Keating at the recent open day. In this respect, Devonport is truly spoiled.

Other Information

Inside; in addition to the café, the museum also features a conference facility and education space.

Friends of the Navy Museum at Torpedo Bay

There will be a new Friends of the Museum group which will enjoy regular meetings, lectures and outings. If you are not already a friend and wish to be part of this new initiative forward your name and contact details to the Navy Museum.

Museum: Open 7 days 10am – 5.00pm Torpedo Bay Cafe: 8.00am – 5.00pm (Closed Christmas Day, Boxing Day, Good Friday)

Photos by www.aotearoa.co.nz and The Speculator (the rubbish ones)
Thanks to Mike Geers for some of the Maori history of Torpedo Bay.

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