To truly understand and appreciate Rotorua, you need to know at least a little of the forces that have shaped it. The best place to find out about them is the Whare Taonga o Te Arawa, or the Rotorua Museum.
Located in the old Tudor bath house in the Government Gardens, Te Whare Taonga o Rotorua is a treasure trove of information on the region’s volatile volcanic landscape, vibrant Maori culture and fascinating history, as well as the people who have made it their home.
When you enter Nga Pumanawa o Te Arawa (the beating hearts of Te Arawa) on the ground floor, you’re in the world of the Te Arawa Iwi (the local tribe). Interactive multi-media displays trace their journey across the vast Pacific and through the centuries to modern day Rotorua. You’ll see how the environment shaped their way of life and hear the myths and legends that explained and ordered their world, including the poignant tale of Rotorua’s own star-crossed lovers, Hinemoa and Tutanekai. You’ll meet their chiefs, their respected elders and even some of their arch enemies. You’ll learn how European settlement and tourism changed their lives forever. A special exhibition and a film tell the bold, brave, lucky and, all too often, tragic stories of the Te Arawa B Company of the Maori Battalion. Displays of exquisite taonga; art, carving, jewellery and clothing show the skill and craftsmanship of generations.
The Museum’s cinema experience, also on the ground floor, gives both the scientific and the mythological explanations for this amazing volcanic region. It shows the stunning Pink and White Terraces and then subjects the viewer to a somewhat unsettling sensurround portrayal of the eruption of Mount Tarawera.
Down in the bowels of the building, you can explore the baths and treatment rooms of the “Great South Seas Spa” which operated here in the late 18th and for half of the 19th century. You’ll also and hear all about the bizarre therapies it offered! For those with an interest in engineering and architecture, the labyrinth of pipes and the vaulted ceilings are a must see.
Climb the sweeping staircase to second floor and you’ll find an exhibition dedicated to the time when the bath house was Tudor Towers, a cabaret restaurant. All the great names of local entertainment did a stint there. There are storyboards and photo displays and some great memorabilia.
Climb further on up through the attic and from a viewing platform high on the roof you can take in the view of the lake and the city and inspect the Tudor exterior of the Great South Seas Spa.