Peter Dimond, Chairman, Waitomo Caves Museum Society (Inc), Waitomo Caves

The Waitomo Caves Museum attempts to develop more fully the understanding of caves - how they are formed and what is found in them. The Cave Guides give the visitor information and explanations about the caves but do not have time to go into much detail. A visit to the museum, either before or after a cave trip will explain more fully any subject in which the visitor may be interested.


The Waitomo Caves Museum Society was formed in 1973 by a group of Waitomo Caves residents with the aim of setting up a historical museum. An incorporated society was formed to give the organisation legal identity. In October 1973 a small museum was set up in two vacant rooms in the Waitomo Hotel leading off the main corridor. This small historical museum attracted 25,000 visitors annually. It operated for three years until the hotel required the rooms for their own purposes.

Planning and fund raising for a permanent building was carried out from the formation of the Society. After consultation with other museums and studying museum literature it was decided that the museum should become a specialist Museum. It was obvious that, being situated at Waitomo Caves and with the interest on caves shown by many people the museum should specialise in speleology and the history of the tourist caves. Members of the New Zealand Speleological Society were enthusiastic and contributed greatly to the setting up of displays. The original interest in local history was not lost. Historical material, mainly photographs (1300 historic photos) and documents are collected and are available for research.

Ideally a museum interpretating the caves should be adjacent to the cave and be included as part of a cave trip. The Tourist Hotel Corporation operates the tourist caves in the area and should perhaps have provided this facility. In fact apart from information given on the guided tour no further information on geology and speleology was given - not even a map of the caves was displayed.

However once the Museum Society was established the Tourist Hotel Corporation provided the finance for the fine building that now houses the museum. The Corporation also provided the services of their architect, and helped in many other ways.


Finding a site in a central position for a building was a problem as there were very few suitable sections. After several years of negotiation a quarter acre of surplus Education Board land was transferred to the Lands and Survey Department as a museum reserve. The advantages to the Museum Society of this arrangement was that the land did not have to be paid for and the Department bore the cost of surveying the section. The Museum Society have a long term lease and pay a nominal yearly rental.


Fund raising commenced for a new building as soon as the Museum Society was formed. Over the years many and varied fund raising methods were used, dinners, raffles, eeling competitions, catering, opportunity shops and selling rocks. Selling signature bricks raised $6,000 and this with the other fund raising and donations came to over $30,000. A grant of $13,000 was received from the New Zealand Lotteries Board and the Tourist Hotel Corporation guaranteed a $70,000 loan for the building from the Waikato Savings Bank. The Waitomo District Council prepared the site for the building, the Lands and Survey Department provided a landscape plan and provided the shrubs.


The building was based on a plan in a Canadian publication (1) and the design allows for additional modules to be added to the building. The plan has worked well as a museum except that all areas are too small, especially the storage and workshop areas. Extensions are planned and will proceed when title to additional land is cleared. The building was completed in May 1981 and opened to the public in October 1981.


The displays were mostly constructed by local volunteers, with assistance from members of the New Zealand Speleological Society. Photographic work and other assistance was given by supporters at Auckland and Waikato Universities, New Zealand Geological Survey and Lands and Survey Department. The display layout and display construction was supervised by the museums display officer Chris Templar, who has been progressively rebuilding and improving the displays.

Ninety percent of displays relate to caves and include:

Stalactite & Stalagmite- how they are formed
Calcified objects - plant material, bones
Relief Model of Waitomo Water Catchment - showing all caves with push button lights
Cave Development - models showing stages in cave development
Geology of the Area - maps, specimens
Palaeomagnetism in Speleothems - dating speleothems
Glowworm Cave Model - showing both cave levels
Cave Model - shafts, passages, waterfall, lights
Cave Diorama - cave scene, audio, lights
Moa Display - information about New Zealnd extinct birds
Extinct Bird Display - subfossil skeletons, push button quiz
Snails and Other Extinct Animals - skeletons and shells
Glowworm - explanation and models
Bats - specimens, skeletons
Cave Beetles - specimens, map-photographs
Cave Wetas - specimens, photographs
Cave Plant Community and Lampenflora - specimens, photographs
Aquarium - crayfish and fish
Lighting in Tourist Caves - lamps and light fittings
Historic Photographic Display of Tourist Caves
Equipment Used in Cave Exploring - ropes, ladders, winch
Lighting Used in Cave Exploring - candles to electric lights
Cave Surveying - maps and equipment
Cave Crawl for Children - 6 metre cave with sound and other effects
Photographic Display

Non-Cave Related Displays:

Surveyors Camp - pioneer display
Local Historic Photographs - groups, teams
Maori Artefacts
Commercial Uses Limestone - photographs

Wherever possible a 'hands on' policy has been adopted for displays, and the displays have been built to encourage participation by visitors e.g. push button quiz. The cave crawl - a six metre cave constructed out of limestone and timber - has been a great success.


The museum has a two projector, single screen automatic system operation at the push of a button in the office. Five programmes are available:

Cavers World - 15 minute wild cave, formations and caving
New Zealand Glowworm - History of glowworm cave and life cycle of glowworm
Origin and Development of Caves - A more advanced programme for schools
Speleothems - How speleothems are formed
The Cave Explorers - A childrens programme

The programmes were made by museum staff and volunteers. "Cavers World" and "New Zealand Glowworm" are shown to the general public and are very well received - perhaps 50% of the museum 'experience" is gained from these shows.

The other audio visual shows are used for education purposes and are shown to school groups.


Four part-time paid curators operate the museum seven days a week. Voluntary work is carried out by committee members and supporters. During the past three years unemployed persons have been employed under Project Employment Schemes (PEP) on projects within the museum. Community organisations can employ unemployed workers for six month periods with the government reimbursing wages in full. The museum has been fortunate in being able to engage qualified people, most of whom have university degrees.

Occupations have included, geologists, biologists, osteologist, historian, AV technician, electronic technician, typist, industrial archaeologist, sociologist and gardner. Projects have been, writing booklets, making AV shows, building electronic equipment, collecting and identifying, geological specimens, preparing material for displays, building up reference collections of ferns, cave insects and subfossils. If it were not for the government sponsored PEP scheme some of the museum activities would have to be scaled down.


The museum has been involved in a limited amount of research, mainly in the collection and identifying subfossils found in caves. The caves are a valuable source of subfossils, mainly extinct birds, some of which are very rare. The museum has some 15,000 subfossil bird bones in its collection. Recently a large weevil was discovered and still has to be named.

Research into the history of caves and industrial use of limestone in the area has been carried out. Now the museum has a comprehensive collection of photographs and documents relating to these subjects.

Geology, botany and Maori rock paintings are other topics that some research has been carried out in.


The museum has published a series of booklets associated with displays presented in the museum and are on sale at the museum and at the Caves. The booklet provides more detailed information about cave related subjects than can be given on a cave trip or shown by a museum display. They have been written by PEP workers during their six month employment period at the museum. Titles of the booklets are:

New Zealand Glowworm
A Century of Tourism - the history of the Tourist Caves
Caves Minerals
Moas and Other Subfossils
Cave Fauna
Cave Entrance Plants


An education service is provided by a part-time Education Officer, who is a trained teacher. The aim is to have a visit to the museum an integral part of the school programmes.

A range of subjects relating to caves and karst are taught e.g. development of karst landscape, adaption of cave animals to a cave environment, "birth of a rock", and caving as a sport. A lesson can include a field trip over karst landscape, or an educational trip through a cave (Ruakuri Cave). The Education Officer works closely with the science advisor from the Education Department. Worksheets and printed information is provided for the school groups. Most of the school groups taking advantage of these lessons are from primary schools. A charge of 50c per head is made to cover the cost of stationery and help pay the education officers wages.

Last year 3,500 pupil hours were spent having lessons at the museum.


The museum houses the New Zealand Speleological Library, the largest collection of speleological literature in the country. The library contains books, papers, reprints, periodicals, theses, maps and video films. Thirty five speleological journals from overseas are received either on an exchange basis or on subscription. Use may be made of this library by members of the New Zealand Speleological Society, Waitomo Caves Museum Society and on request by members of the public for research. Other libraries can borrow through the interloan system. A part-time librarian is employed.


The community are rightly proud of the museum that has been developed and comments of visitors indicate that it is fulfilling a need. 26,000 people visit the museum annually. The Museum would like to be able to employ more staff and get involved in more research, but as with similar institutions a shortage of finance is a problem. Running expenses are derived from entrance fees (Adults $1.50, children free), booksales, donations and other fund raising projects. Apart from the Tourist Hotel Corporation financing of the building no financial support is received from the local body or government agencies.

Future plans are to combine with the Lands and Survey Department to double the size of the building. This department wants to be able to publicise and interpret the many scenic reserves in the area and part of the addition will provide areas for this. Additional much needed workshop and storage areas will be provided. Also a new audio visual theatre is planned and this will free the existing AV room for teaching school groups.

(1) The Technical Requirements of Small Museums by Raymond O. Harrison. Published by the Canadian Museums Association