The beauty of the New Zealand band rotunda

From their use as restaurants to observatories, protest platforms to venues for royal visits, as well as their traditional function as settings for community music making, New Zealand’s band rotundas have a diverse history—one which is being told at an exhibition being launched Monday 13 March at the Turnbull Gallery at the National Library of New Zealand.

Band rotundas in New Zealand

Co-curated by Victoria University of Wellington Associate Professor of Musicology Samantha Owens and Alexander Turnbull Library Music Curator Dr Michael Brown, the exhibition, An Ornament to the TownThe Band Rotunda in New Zealand,is the culmination of years of avidly seeking out rotundas around the country by both curators.

“What fascinates me is the diversity of architectural designs of the rotundas. And they are a real link to the musical past—although people don’t go to the park every Sunday to listen to the brass bands anymore, the rotundas are still used for concerts,” says Associate Professor Owens.

“They were part of social recreation and leisure, in the early decades of the twentieth century especially, and our existing rotundas are an evocative reminder of that. They’re elegant structures and probably our most important form of musical architecture,” says Dr Brown.

“In many ways the whole tradition of public music making in the outdoors is very strong in New Zealand—rotundas and sound shells are still used today, so there’s a nice continuity there. Brass bands remain a vital tradition, too. They overlap with other areas of musical culture, providing a source of energy and talent for all sorts of other genres, including classical music, jazz and rock.”

After learning of their shared interest in band rotundas through a conversation with a mutual friend, Associate Professor Owens and Dr Brown began pooling their own photographs and knowledge with the resources of the Alexander Turnbull Library—a collaboration which has been incredibly valuable, says Associate Professor Owens.

“This is the perfect opportunity for our two institutions to collaborate. The Alexander Turnbull Library is so well set up. A lot of the images we’re using have already been digitised which is great. Some evidence is slightly more difficult to uncover or find, so the knowledge base and resources at the Library have been hugely helpful,” says Associate Professor Owens.

“We have a lot of material relating to New Zealand music history at the Library and it’s wonderful for it to be used by staff and students of the New Zealand School of Music at Victoria University. It’s fantastic to be able to come together as a community of scholars,” says Dr Brown.

The exhibition will include historic and present-day photos of New Zealand band rotundas, brass band recordings and sheet music, architectural plans, early postcards featuring rotundas, and curious stories of band rotundas which Associate Professor Owens and Dr Brown have uncovered.

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

When: 13 March to 2 June

Where: Turnbull Gallery at theNational Library of New Zealand, Corner of Molesworth and Aitken Streets, Thorndon, Wellington

The Alexander Turnbull Library is a part of the National Library of New Zealand.

For more information contact Samantha Owens on or 04-463-5855