Tawhiti Museum: Such A Gem In Hawera

Sometimes your spur-of-the-moment decision becomes a wonderful discovery. That was certainly the case when we visited the Tawhiti Museum in January.

And although most of this blog is centred on Southland and it’s people, Tawhiti, owned and created by Nigel and Teresa Ogle, is such a fabulous museum that I had to let you in on its secrets.

Entrance to Tawhiti Museum
The entrance to the unexpectedly entrancing Tawhiti Museum.

Tawhiti Museum

Remember those dioramas you made as a kid for school projects? The tiny figures in painted shoe-box scenery probably took you hours to make. Well, Tawhiti Museum has taken the art to a whole new level.

This surprising place brings history to life with hundreds of dioramas. Miniature models sync with life-size scenes to show Taranaki’s vivid past.

There’s so much to Tawhiti that you could easily spend all day there.

For a start there are three astonishing collections to see, as well as the cafe and workshop. It’s hard to choose between them if you only have a couple of hours to spare.

If you’re lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of the creator of all this magic for he is often found hard at work in the Body Shop, painting his next piece of magic.

Tawhiti Museum owner and artist Nigel Ogle paints a tiny figure for his next exhibition.
Nigel Ogle

Tawhiti Owner and Artist Nigel Ogle

Nigel and his wife Teresa bought the old Tawhiti Cheese Factory just outside Hawera in 1975.  How could they imagine what it would become? Fast forward 40 years and Tawhiti is now one of the most innovative private museums in New Zealand.

It all began in 1980 as a hobby for school teacher Nigel; a way to combine his two great passions, art and history. But the model collection soon took on a life of its own. So in 1988 Nigel left teaching behind and became the artist – storyteller we see today.

Taranaki History In Models Great And Small

Nigel doesn’t just make figures, he brings whole scenes from Taranaki’s past to life with detailed props and scenery.

Every expression and frozen gesture brings you into the story. Looking at their faces it’s easy to imagine their thoughts and feelings in the moment.

Nigel can take anywhere from months to years to create a display.

He’s often persuaded friends, relatives and locals to let him cast their moulds which have later become his life-size models. And he’s painstakingly created many tiny figurines in wax, too. These make the moulds which allow him to recreate hundreds of each.

Not only that, Nigel has created all the detailed scenery, right down to the last flax leaf and musket. It’s hard for him to get away from it all. Even when walking the dog he collects driftwood and rocks for his next masterpiece.

Close up on a tiny figure and detailed scenery in a Trader and Whaler diorama.

All that detail is something that visitors to Tawhiti frequently mention.

Moturoa and Te Atiawa

In the 1820’s the wars between iwi in Waikato and Taranaki were fierce. When a Taranaki warrior killed a great Waikato Chief the Waikato tribes vowed utu — revenge. Waikato had long been trading for muskets which gave them a huge advantage.

Into this hotbed sailed two traders, Dicky Barrett and Jacky Love bringing muskets a-plenty for whatever Taranaki iwi had to sell.

So it was, in 1832, that when Waikato came calling once more, the Te Atiawa were ready. The battle at Otaka was long and hard. But this time, with European muskets and cannons to use, Te Atiawa managed to repel the invaders.

Then, fearful of the retribution that was bound to follow, the whole tribe fled. Some went south to Kapiti and Wellington. But Barrett and around 300 villagers set up home on the offshore island of Moturoa.

Traders and Whalers

I can’t say that I knew a lot about  the trading and whaling history of Taranaki before we visited Tawhiti. The museum brings it vividly to life.

We saw miniature dioramas and information boards a-plenty but the true magic of Traders and Whalers comes as you float back in time. Because, incredibly, Nigel has recreated the rocky Moturoa caverns and cliffs as a ride inside the museum.

Now, you can step onto a boat and let the story come to life around you.

The scale is incredible.

Scene after scene comes into the light as you swish along on the dark river. You see life-size warriors sharpening spears. Traders, women, children — all going about their daily lives in the cramped caverns. There are buildings, goods, food … even a pitched battle erupts around you.

And you can’t help but end the tour wondering. “How did Nigel build all this in four short years?”

Watch from 3:35 to see a little of the Traders and Whalers ride in action.

Farm Hall

You can’t imagine how big the Farm Hall is, or the incredible collection that waits inside.

Here, lined up for inspection come tractor, after tractor, after polished tractor. There’s every brand you could possibly name — and more —  to begin this amazing tour.

Polished red tractors lined up in the Tawhiti Museum farm hall.

But it doesn’t stop there. The tractors give way to army jeeps and steam traction engines. Turn the corner and you’ll see old balers, mowers and every type of farm machinery you could ever imagine. Miniatures, models and tools vie for space on shelves and walls.

I’m not a mechanical sort of gal, but this collection left me stunned.

It would take you days to explore it all. I guess that for vintage enthusiasts, the Farm Hall is probably akin to machinery heaven.

Hawera

We visited Tawhiti on our final day in Hawera, and I really wished we had more time to spare.

In fact, Hawera turned out to be a delightful town to visit. It has lovely parks, two interesting beaches and its fair share of cafes delivering delicious food.

But surely Tawhiti Museum has to be the jewel in its crown. I can’t wait to return.

P.S.

If you stay in Hawera I’d have to recommend the Kerry Lane Motel. Five minutes out of town, this motel has everything a family could possibly want. Comfortable, spacious units, lovely gardens, animals and plenty of space to play. What’s not to love?

Picturesque motel unit and garden at Kerry Lane Motel in Hawera.

More Artist Stories To Enjoy On TOML

Tawhiti Links

Tawhiti Museum home page

Is This Your First Visit To Time Of My Life?

Discover the Who, What and Why of TOML.

Check out my home page here and my behind the scenes story here.

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