Canterbury Museum

Our History

Canterbury Museum - shown in 1850

An exterior view of Canterbury Museum ca 1905. Charles Beken photograph. Canterbury Museum 1955.81.677

Canterbury Museum, in Christchurch’s Cultural Precinct, is housed in a beautiful stone building that was first opened in 1870.

The first director of the Museum was Julius Haast. Haast was also the surveyor-general of Canterbury from 1861 to 1871 and several places in New Zealand are named for him, including Haast Pass, the Haast River and the town of Haast. He also named the Franz Josef Glacier after the Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Canterbury Museum is still world-renowned for its natural and human history collections

Exchanges, mainly of moa bones and bird skins, with overseas museums allowed Haast to form the basis of Canterbury Museum’s collection, and in his day it was probably the leading museum in the Southern Hemisphere.

Julius Haast

Sir Julius von Haast - First director of Canterbury Museum

The Museum building itself is fascinating, and was originally designed by B W Mountfort. When the Canterbury Pilgrims arrived on 16 December 1850 Mountfort was one of the first settlers ashore and he lived and worked in Canterbury for the rest of his life. As an architect he designed most of the public buildings that give Christchurch its distinctive Gothic Revival character, including the Museum and the Canterbury Provincial Council Buildings,

Canterbury Museum’s original portico is still used as the entrance today and around its columns you can see a delightful array of animal faces peeping out from a background of leaves, all carved in Oamaru stone. The inscription over the entrance was suggested by William Rolleston as being a suitable text and was added by Claudius Brassington in 1896. It is a passage from Job 26.14, which reads, Lo these are parts of His ways but how little a portion is heard of Him.

Canterbury Museum is still world-renowned for its natural and human history collections. The Antarctic Gallery is a particular highlight, with an extensive collection of artefacts from the Heroic Era of Antarctic exploration. See if you can spot Roald Amundsen’s pocket knife, which he used to sharpen the bamboo stake planted at the South Pole to fly the Norwegian flag on 17 December 1911. There’s also interactive fun for kids in the Discovery area, and a café with treetop views of the Botanic Gardens.