21 January 2009

Tales to tell back on shore

On the first day of 2009 Auckland was positively glowing in the warmest of summer sunlight as the city's inhabitants woke up from whatever New Year revels they had indulged in the night before. Still in my post-jetlag early rising mode, I decided to fill a long-standing gap in my inventory of Auckland experiences that I had meant to address for years.

Despite visiting Queen Street regularly throughout my seven years in Wellington, I had never ventured inside the National Maritime Museum, which is located on the waterfront at the entrance to the well-moneyed and rather soulless Viaduct Basin. I've been to a wide selection of maritime museums in my travels, with those in Greenwich, Amsterdam and Sydney being particularly memorable. But the one in Auckland? For years I steered clear, for no good reason.

One cause of hesitation was the fact that the museum's largest exhibit, the maxi-hull America's Cup yacht KZ1, looms over the entrance as a tangible reminder of the Viaduct's role as host of the Cup from 1995 to 2003. While I acknowledge that holding the Cup was a sporting feat of some renown, I have absolutely no desire to visit an America's Cup museum, having grown heartily sick of the tedium generated by its interminable domination of the New Zealand media for many years. Sure, to be out there sailing on the yachts would be quite exciting. But watching it on television? Even more boring than watching golf. What's the point of watching a sport on TV if you need a complicated computer graphics package to make sense of what's going on? Without the graphics you can't even tell who's in front. And that's before I've even mentioned the hyperactive Olympics-obstructing jabbering of the hysterical Peter Montgomery.

But on closer investigation, my fears were allayed. The museum avoids the pitfalls of pandering to America's Cup bores, and instead concentrates on telling the story of New Zealand seafaring thoroughly and with gusto. Charting a course through the long history of these islands, the museum highlights the proud tradition of Polynesian mariners, the bravery of early European explorers and colonists, the building of a merchant marine in a young nation beset by terrible roads, and the maturation of New Zealand's relationship with the sea through the 20th and 21st centuries. It also boasts a small collection of heritage vessels that stage harbour cruises for visitors when the weather's fine.

All in all, I wished I'd made the journey to the National Maritime Museum a little earlier. It seems to have quite a low profile in Auckland, which is a pity given the quality of its exhibits. If you've not been before, I commend it to your attention if you fancy an interesting afternoon by the Auckland waterfront. Now all we need to do is convince the Council to take a leaf out of Wellington's book and revamp the waterfront so it actually feels like part of the Auckland downtown area.

(Below: Sema Makawa, a Fijian drua canoe built in 1993; and a mock-up of the steerage cabin of a 19th-century colonists' ship, complete with under-floor rocking motion and creaking noises. Above: The masts of KZ1, decorated for Christmas)

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