The Air Force Museum of New Zealand

One of the world’s premier military aviation collections is housed at the Air Force Museum of New Zealand at Wigram in Christchurch. Their mission is to preserve and present the history of New Zealand military aviation for commemoration, inspiration, learning and enjoyment.

Research at the Air Force Museum

The Air Force Museum of New Zealand’s Research Collection consists of two archives. The paper archive comprises personal collections, manuscripts and ephemera, logbooks, journals, technical drawings and publications, maps and a research library of over 3,500 books.

The photographic archive comprises some 700,000 prints and negatives as well as photographic albums, film and sound objects.

Their collection includes:

  • Published books on military aviation topics
  • Unpublished manuscripts
  • Operations Record Books for squadrons and bases (also known as Unit Histories)
  • Aircrew log books
  • Letters, diaries and other personal papers
  • Maps, plans and technical drawings
  • Technical manuals for aircraft and equipment
  • Photographs and negatives of people, places and aircraft
  • Film and sound
  • Paintings, works on paper and prints.

Museum to keep Wigram legacy alive: A 2009 interview with Air Force Museum of New Zealand communications manager David Clearwater.

HarvardThe Air Force Museum of New Zealand is keeping Sir Henry Wigram’s aviation tradition at Wigram alive by dropping its entry charges.

The change is a permanent shift in the museum’s approach that communications manager David Clearwater says is designed to reconnect the site with its local community.

Although our admission fee wasn’t a great deal when you compare it to other attractions … we really want to remove that barrier so that people will come; the locals will ideally come back, and tourists will put this idea on their itinerary because its noteworthy and they should do it,” he said.

Clearwater says the move to free entry cements the Air Force Museum of New Zealand’s reputation as a high-quality attraction.

Museums of significance in New Zealand have free entry. We are one. We want to make sure we remove as many barriers as we possibly can.

Clearwater also stresses that although air traffic no longer passes through Wigram, gifted land remains in public ownership.

The land area – 37.5 hectares – the Defence Force still have that. Sir Henry’s land is still here, retained as it should be.

The Wigram site has slowly been swallowed up by a growing city, a situation that Clearwater describes as a “paradox”.

We’re close enough to the city that people know that we’re here, but we’re almost so close that people drive past and think we’ll have to go there sometime

Aircraft, base part of social history

The museum offers tours and programmes that will help Christchurch remember not only aircraft – but also the social history of an airbase and a community.

People have always lived in the area, so a Walking round Wigram tour takes in “significant sites” around the township.

Essentially Wigram is not really going to change. We know that the runway will close. There’s a lot that the community can do here other than walk through the door and look at old aircraft, he says.

Tours of the base, such as the restoration tour, will be re-launched to cater for those who want to see current work taking place at Wigram and planes that are in various stages of completion. Other facilities include the Brevet Club, which seats 90, and a 110-seat theatre, and conference rooms.

Education and holiday programmes

InteriorThe education officer teaches over 4000 pupils per year, including students who use the museum to work on their art portfolios. Public programmes, a visitor host programme and a full 110-seat AV theatre support these efforts. Clearwater hopes to show World War II newsreels to give visitors a taste of military history.

I watched a couple not so long ago. It reminds you of everything that used to happen. It’s all part of the social history. It’s not just the aviation. It’s when the troops were repatriated, what the Government did to help them. It reminds you what life was like.

Holiday programmes give children a chance to try things they’ve never done before, Clearwater says. Survivor at Wigram, where rations, known as “rat-packs” were cooked up, and where students get to jump out of a plane onto crash pads, was particularly popular.

Into the future

The last airshow at the base drew large numbers of people to the base.

The queues to go through the Herc and the Orion were massive. But we had a similar length queue leading into the Bristol Freighter. I think people just wanted to get up close and walk through the aircraft. We can still do that – we just can’t have the Orion and the Herc.

Air displays were also an option for the future, Clearwater says, “if the airforce are available to do that for us. They’ll either land at Harewood, take off from there and then go back, or they’ll leave the North Island, come through and do their display and leave.”

New marketing initiatives including new signage, publications and a change of name to the Air Force Museum of New Zealand will all help get the word out, Clearwater says.

Restorations will continue at the base. RNZAF staff work with volunteers to rebuild and refurbish aircraft and preserve them for future generations. Three projects were underway at the base: a Huck starter – a Model-T that was converted to help start aircraft engines, a Kittyhawk and a Catalina. There are years of work to do, Clearwater says.

Interviewed February 2009

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