An Ornament to the Town: The Band Rotunda in New Zealand

With the sound of period music softly playing in the background, the latest exhibition at Aratoi will induce fond memories of brass bands and carol concerts in the park for some gallery-goers.

An ornament to the town is a Turnbull Gallery touring exhibition focusing on the history of the band rotunda in New Zealand, a civic phenomenon which in large part sprang from the enthusiasm for band music in days gone by.

Over 100 rotundas were built throughout New Zealand from the 1890s to the 1930s – Wellington alone had nine. The often elegant structures, many of which have survived to this day, sheltered musicians while they performed for the public, projecting their music out across parks and botanic gardens, beaches and city streets. They have also been used for other purposes too, including royal visits, farewell events for WW1 troops, speeches and protests.

Bringing a local flavor to the exhibition, Wairarapa Archive has contributed images and history of Queen Elizabeth II Park’s own rotunda. This was built by the Masterton Borough Council in the then Municipal Park to celebrate the coronation of Edward VII in 1902,

The council’s first choice of a site was in the middle of the Oval but this was understandably met with consternation by the town’s cricket and rugby players, so the current a location by the grandstand was chosen. The new rotunda was modelled on one on the promenade in Napier, with similar ornate pillars and lacy wrought iron decoration. It was opened with due ceremony on 3 June 1903.

By 1979, the rotunda was in a sad state after years of neglect, and the parks and reserves committee decided to demolish it. But a Mrs Muriel Morrison rallied support for it to be repaired and, with assistance from the Masterton Lions Club, the Master Plumbers Association and public donations, the rotunda was restored in time for a tree-planting ceremony with the Prince and Princess of Wales in 1983. Unfortunately, the gingko tree was not so lucky, being vandalised soon afterwards, as was a replacement tree planted to commemorate Diana’s death.

The collected photos show a great range of styles from the plain and prosaic  – such as the rotunda that once stood on the Parade at Lyall Bay, Wellington – to whimsical Edwardian structures that are a fitting backdrop to the flamboyant hats and Sunday best fashions of families and civic leaders on their ‘red letter’ days. The exhibition paints a picture of a less cynical age when days out were shared by the whole community and had a clear focal point.


An Ornament to the Town: The Band Rotunda in New Zealand is on at Aratoi until 26 November.


A group at a band rotunda in Government Gardens, Rotorua in 1905
(Ref: PAColl-6348-50. Alexander Turnbull Library), and the Coronation Band Rotunda,
Masterton (Photo: Wairarapa Archive).