New Zealand is better known for its beautiful nature than its art galleries and museums, but there are several well-worth visiting. Museums and galleries in the cities are also ideal places to avoid rainy weather. From the big-name museums that most travelers will have heard of—such as Wellington's Te Papa—to lesser-known places in smaller towns, museums and galleries are great places to learn more about New Zealand culture, history, and creativity.
Auckland War Memorial Museum
The Auckland War Memorial Museum (more commonly called just the Auckland Museum) is a grand colonnaded building at the top of a hill in Auckland's sprawling Domain park. It does have sections dedicated to commemorating New Zealand's involvement in war, but there's much more to it than that. Permanent and temporary exhibits tell the story of New Zealand's indigenous people, environment, colonial history, arts and crafts, and modern creativity.
International Antarctic Centre
New Zealand is one of the closest countries to Antarctica, and New Zealanders have been involved in many scientific studies and explorations of the great icy continent. You'll be able to learn all about this at the International Antarctic Centre in Christchurch, where there are interactive exhibits to entertain and educate the whole family, as well as penguins. It's handily located near the airport, so is a good place to spend some time if you have to check out of your hotel before a late flight.
Museum of Transport and Technology (MOTAT)
MOTAT is conveniently located near the Auckland Zoo, making it a great second stop on a zoo day. As the full name suggests, MOTAT focuses on science, technology, and machines, and is a very hands-on sort of museum. A unique New Zealand slant is put on all the exhibitions, and the curators aim to present Kiwi ingenuity at its best.
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki
The Auckland Art Gallery displays and promotes New Zealand art both old and new. It has the largest collection of art in New Zealand, with over 17,000 items. The buildings that comprise the gallery are attractions themselves and include a late 19th-century heritage wing and thoughtfully designed modern additions.
Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
If you can only visit one museum or gallery in the whole of New Zealand, make it Wellington's Te Papa. The name means "container of treasures," and the large building houses a wide variety of artifacts, artworks, and information relating to New Zealand culture and history. Don't miss Te Marae, a modern, indoor take on a traditional Maori meeting house that's actually used for many ceremonial and cultural functions.
Toitū Otago Settlers' Museum, Dunedin
Dunedin is one of the most significant cities in the history of the European colonization of New Zealand and Toitū Otago Settlers' Museum recounts the human history of the area. The 14 themed galleries trace the history of human settlement of Dunedin, from the earliest to the most recent. It will be easy to spot due to the dramatic arrowhead roof.
World of WearableArt & Classic Car Museum
Until it moved to Wellington in 2005, the annual World of WearableArt competition was held in Nelson. The small South Island city keeps its connection to the creative event alive through this museum, where winning outfits are displayed. As such, the outfits on display change regularly, making this an ideal museum for repeat visits. The same complex houses a collection of more than 140 classic cars, which is a bit of an odd combination but will keep visitors with various interests happy.
Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre
If you can tear yourself away from Marlborough wine-tasting tours, Blenheim's Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre is a fun place to be immersed in aviation history. The museum had its first exhibition in 2006 after close to a decade of planning. displays vintage World War I and World War II-era airplanes and artifacts donated by aviation enthusiasts like Peter Jackson, director of the "Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit" series. In fact, the museum has one of the largest collections of WWI aircraft.
Christchurch's recent history has been defined by a serious earthquake in 2011, and one of the best places to learn about this is at the Canterbury Museum. The Quake City section explains the science behind the earthquake in a way that kids and adults can understand. It also contains some important items damaged in the earthquake, such as the spire of the iconic Christ Church Cathedral that was destroyed.
New Zealand Rugby Museum
If you're traveling in New Zealand in winter, sports fans can watch a real-life rugby match. If you miss the New Zealand rugby season, head to Palmerston North's Rugby Museum instead. You'll be able to see old-time rugby memorabilia and some amusing photos of past players at this museum that preserves, protects, and displays New Zealand's rugby history.
The Sarjeant Gallery
Whanganui's Sarjeant Gallery is a work in progress, as the historic building is currently being restored and expanded to provide a better home for the Sarjeant's extensive collection of New Zealand and international art. Although Whanganui is a small city, this gallery contains one of the country's most impressive collections of art and has one of New Zealand's best photographic collections.
Dunedin Public Art Gallery
Right in the central-city Octagon, the Dunedin Public Art Gallery is an ideal place to go on a cold or rainy day (as is often the case in Dunedin). In addition to the great collection of New Zealand and international art, the layout of the building is spacious, sunny, and inspiring. Donaghy's Foyer is hung with sculptures, and visitors are often surprised that the relatively small exterior opens up into such a large interior.