The museum's principles incorporate the concepts of unified collections; the narratives of culture and place; the idea of forum; the bicultural partnership between Tangata Whenua and Tangata Tiriti; and an emphasis on diversity and multidisciplinary collaboration.
The first predecessor of Te Papa was the Colonial Museum, founded in 1865, with James Hector as founding director. It was built on Museum Street.
Halfway through the 1930s the museum moved to the new Dominion Museum building in Buckle Street, where the National Art Gallery of New Zealand was also housed.
In January 2013 Te Papa management announced the museum would be split into two parts-one operating much as it has in the past, and the other focusing on the future.