When traveling through Christchurch, New Zealand’s oldest city, it’s easy to get lost in the Gothic architecture and wooden villas of an age gone by. Settled in the mid-1800s as a late conquest of an expanding British empire, the city was hand-built for the gentry — designed and constructed as a home away from home in the South Pacific. While the area now has its own unique vibe, pockets of its history have been carefully conserved and can still be enjoyed to this day.
There are many ways to experience this proudly English city’s story, but to relive the journey of its founders, first stop by the official Canterbury Museum. The attraction is renowned for its expansive natural and human history collections, with several floors of displays to explore. Allow at least half a day to examine the museum’s permanent collections and temporary exhibitions, such as Brilliant Brass: Banding in Canterbury (on display through September 22, 2013). During your visit, you’ll learn about the region’s ancient history, as records take you through the story of the first inhabitants. The Iwi Tawhito and Ngā Taonga galleries tell 1,000 years worth of stories about the native Māori people’s experiences in New Zealand. Later, relive the discovery of a bold new land through a retelling of the first European landing in 1815 and the bustling expansion that soon followed. Other highlights of this cultural asset include a natural history center for children, an expansive bird display hall and a depiction of the Commonwealth Trans Antarctic Expedition of 1955 to 1958.
The next stop on any history enthusiast’s travel should be Ferrymead Heritage Park, an Edwardian outpost that helps visitors see what life was like for the country’s early settlers. Historic buildings, including a picture theater, church, jail, railway station and tobacconist, have been fully restored on-site and offer a glimpse into the past. Volunteers and 19 charitable societies operate several small museums out of the buildings too, showing off collections of tractors, photography and more from as early as the 1860s. Bring a camera to make a bit of your own history.
Not all of Christchurch’s notable historic events took place more than 100 years ago. In 2011, a series of earthquakes hit the city, leaving a wake of destruction in their path. While this event did destroy many historical buildings, including the iconic Christchurch Cathedral, visitors shouldn’t worry — it is now a safe place to visit since the ground has long stopped shaking. This recent history has been conserved in the Quake City attraction coordinated by the Canterbury Museum and housed in the pop-up Re:Start mall (also known as the “container mall”), which is a temporary shopping center built out of shipping containers. Prepare to be moved as you see the story from the eyes of those who lived it. Remnants of buildings, including the spire of Christchurch’s Cathedral, are on display while other galleries honor the first responders that saved lives through stories and photographs.
More than two years after the quakes, Christchurch’s recovery is now in full swing as the process of rebuilding the city gets underway. Landscapes are changing all the time; in Christchurch, the city’s people are forging a brave new future and creating new history in the process.
Photos Courtesy of Briony Bonisch, Chee Hong, Canterbury Museum and Daniel Johnson