Dunedin is New Zealand’s education capital. It is home to the country’s oldest university and one of the country’s largest polytechnics. It is also home to some of the most prestigious high schools in New Zealand. With so much emphasis on education, it is no surprise the city boasts 8 museums. These range from the internationally recognized Otago Museum to the Dunedin Museum of Natural Mystery which is a quirky private collection in artist and sculptor, Bruce Mahalski’s house. Filling three rooms in his central city villa, this little museum contains skulls, bones, biological curiosities, along with cultural art and artifacts which Bruce has collected over a lifetime. There is also a gallery displaying his own unique bone art and paintings.

Dunedin Museum of Natural Mystery (


Another one of Dunedin’s modest museums is located at Portobello on the Otago Peninsula. In 1974, local people got a selection of early photographs and historic items together in the community hall and created the Otago Peninsula Museum. Twelve years later, the museum was relocated to its present site further down the road when the main office building and display room were built. The change of location was warranted after an original settler’s cottage from Portobello was donated. As well as this major attraction, a replica barn was built to house antique farm equipment that had been collected from locals.  Recent additions to this interesting little museum include a Peninsula Motor Service bus cab, the Cape Saunders lighthouse lantern room, the radar room from Taiaroa Head and the old local jail. Even a cannon found at Harrington Point has been put on display.


This harbour side museum is crowded with heaps of interesting nautical exhibits in a building that used to be the Post and Telegraph Office when Captain Scott and his crew left Port Chalmers for Antarctica on 29 November 1910. The last letters and telegrams they sent went from this building. The museum’s exhibits cover commercial fishing, shipping, Antarctic exploration and social history. I was fascinated by the ship photos and exhibits. Everything was crowded together which to me, only added to the interest of the place.

The Boat Shed at the back of the main gallery has large scale exhibits including a deck-cabin from the Union Steam Ship Co cargo ship Sea Hawk, along with a 100 year old fishing-boat, a plywood single-scull skiff and an X Class clinker timber yacht and other items relating to local boat building and water sports. A large window in the gallery provides a close up view of the port’s operations.  The museum building is unique internationally by being surrounded on three sides by a working container port with container and cruise ships berthing within 200 meters of the building.

Port Chalmers Maritime Museum (


The Dunedin Gas Works was the first gas plant to open in New Zealand and the last to close. Gas was first ignited in Dunedin in May 1863, At the time, there was still an insatiable demand for gas from the new industries being established to meet the increasing demand from a rapidly expanding, gold rich town.

Over the years, a series of improvements were made to the gas works. A Retort House was constructed in 1906, along with a new 1 million cubic foot gas holder. In 1927, a new Retort House was built but was replaced by a more advanced one in 1962. When this finally ceased operation in 1987, the gas works themselves closed their doors.

Most of the complex was demolished shortly after closure, but a small band of enthusiasts managed to save what has become the museum we see today. The chimney, built in the late nineteenth century, is the oldest remaining structure. Other industrial buildings still standing on the site would fit perfectly as background in a Charles Dickens story.

However, the main attractions in the museum are the fully operational steam engines in the Engine House. Many hours of loving attention have ensured these wonderful survivors of Victorian industrial technology are there to captivate future generations. Standing mesmerised in the presence of this collection of machines as they hum and purr, must bring back eye moistening memories to those who remember the time when steam drove the world’s industry.

With names such as Atmospheric, Rotative Beam and Horizontal, the engines could be characters from a childrens’ storybook. The Bryan Donkin Booster whispers a repetitive, hypnotic chant that almost sounds human.

The Waller Exhauster has a muted hiss that is strangely soothing. The rhythmical ker cha, ker cha of the beautiful little Beam Engine is soporific. This wonderful survivor from the age of steam is one of only two ever built at the Garrison Foundry in Falkirk, Scotland.

Any visitor who experiences the Engine House at the Dunedin Gasworks Museum while it’s in full operation, with the tang of hot metal, steam and warm oil hanging heavily in the air, takes away a lasting memory of a bygone era when machines were solidly built to last. The micro chip generation can only stand in wonder as they gaze at this fascinating place from a period in history when size mattered and moving parts worked in harmony to produce energy for factories manufacturing commodities for a new order which grew from the Industrial Revolution of the mid 1800s.

Dunedin Gasworks Museum (


Located in Dunedin’s famous railway station, the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame was established in 1990 to mark New Zealand’s 150 years of organised settlement. 75 of New Zealand’s greatest sports achievers were inducted in the year the hall opened, being one for every two years of nationhood. Inductions now take place at least every two years. Generally, sports people need to have been retired for five years from active international competition to be eligible for induction. All sports played in New Zealand qualify for players to be considered for their details to be displayed. Looking through the list of those featured in the Hall of Fame, I don’t recognize most of them so I guess this sports museum would be a great place to visit to find out about New Zealand’s sporting achievements.


The Otago Museum is one of the finest museums in the southern hemisphere. The natural science selections of specimens are internationally significant, with the spider collections from around the world. There are over 40,000 marine specimens and 30,000 bird specimens (including nests and eggs). The moa collection is one of the world’s best, with two out of the three complete moa eggs in the world on view.

Otago Museum (

The museum’s humanities section contains a notable collection of bladed weapons and armour as well as ancient coins from the classical world. Numbering 150, the Otago Museum also has the largest known collection of cuneiform tablets in the southern hemisphere. Like all great museums, pottery, jewellery, costume, glassware, clocks, furniture, stamps, guns, cameras, and stone tools are also on view. I can remember doing school trips to this museum. We would all make a bee line to the Egyptian mummy and gaze at the elongated head wrapped in age stained cloth. It was always an exciting time but since then the museum has been seriously refurbished and is now a brightly lit place with modern decor to add to its attractiveness.


The Otago Museum offers the only 3 level live butterfly enclosure in Australasia. The specially built annex also boasts the first glass skywalk in the world allowing visitors to amble high above the hundreds of fluttering inhabitants.

The tropical butterflies arrive every week from suppliers in Costa Rica, Ecuador and the Philippines where the caterpillars are reared in shade houses and trees.  The pupae is then boxed and freighted to Dunedin. This has been made possible because the Ministry of Agriculture has licensed the attraction as a containment facility, quite an achievement in a country with such strict bio security laws.

The public can watch the pupae hatching through windows in the recesses in the walls of the butterfly house. There are 60 species on display and the various butterflies live from a few days to around 2 months.

Each step in the development of this major attraction has been carefully considered. Re-creating a tropical forest, complete with lush plants including orchids, bromeliads, coffee, ginger, banana, cardamom and passionfruit plants, was quite a challenge in the cool climate of southern New Zealand.

Along with the assortment of spectacular butterflies, the Tropical forest, heated to 30 degrees with 80% humidity, is also home to turtles, finches and a few live tarantulas.

Since opening, the Discovery World Tropical Forest has won 3 National Tourism awards.


New Wing at Otago Settler’s Museum (

The Otago Settler’s Museum was set up way back in 1898, making it one of the oldest museums in Australasia. Today, it tells the story of Otago’s development from the arrival of the first settler’s up to present times. For me, the more interesting exhibits cover life in Dunedin during the 1930s, 40s, 50, and 60s.  Cars and public transport vehicles from these decades are wonderful reminders of life when Dunedin was an important major New Zealand city. Life in Otago over the past century is also captured with exhibits recreating aspects of life during the province’s gold rush. This is a rambling museum which apart from the new wing, is also housed in the art deco former Otago Road Services bus terminal. Most visitors will go away remembering Josephine, a glorious example of Victorian locomotive design. The engine was built in 1872 to run on New Zealand’s first rail line which was built to connect Dunedin to Port Chalmers.

It stands to reason that Dunedin being New Zealand’s centre of education should also be home to so many fascinating museums from one of the best in the southern hemisphere to one of the quirkiest.

Apart from the museums mentioned above, there is also Olveston, but that is another blog.

Ceidrik Heward

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