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Topographical mapping

A topographic map is a graphic representation of natural and man-made features on the ground. It typically includes information about the terrain and a reference grid so users can plot the location of features.

New Zealand has a national mapping agency responsible for producing consistently styled topographic maps covering all parts of the country. In 1935 the Committee of Imperial Defence, wary of the threat posed by Japan, called for the development of nationwide inch to the mile topographical maps. The task was aided by the advent of aerial photography and its subsequent use to capture topographic features (photogrammetry). The first of 360 maps in the NZMS 1 series was published by the Department of Lands and Survey in 1939. The last sheet appeared in 1975.

Imperial unit maps became obsolete when New Zealand moved to a metric system. NZMS 1 was replaced by NZMS 260, a revised series of 1:50,000 scale topographic maps, published over a 20-year period from 1977 to 1997. Responsibility for national mapping moved to the Department of Survey and Land Information in 1987, and to LINZ in 1996.

By 2000, advances in digital technology were making existing methods of map production obsolete. A new national map projection (NZ Transverse Mercator) was introduced in 2001 and officially adopted in 2007. LINZ embarked on a program to digitise and re-project the national topographic data, eventually publishing a revised 1:50,000 print map series in 2009. All 451 sheets in the new NZTopo50 series were released simultaneously, the world's first release of an entire national map series in one day. 

LINZ also produces smaller scale topographic maps of New Zealand, topographic maps for New Zealand's offshore islands, for areas under its jurisdiction in the Antarctic, and for the South Pacific nations of Tokelau, Niue, and the Cook Islands.

1939 Napier and Hastings, NZMS 1; N134

by AJ Reid 
Wellington: Lands & Survey, 1939
MapColl 830cba/1939-/15175
by AJ Reid Wellington: Lands & Survey, 1939, MapColl 830cba/1939-/15175

This was the first of 352 map sheets published in NZMS 1, the inch-to-the-mile nation-wide topographic map series. NZMS 1 proved to be an invaluable cartographic resource, although the early maps were produced somewhat urgently in response to the threat of a foreign invasion, and lack the refinements of later editions. N134 was compiled from survey data and aerial photographs, and features contours drawn at hundred foot intervals.

1996 Mount Cook, NZMS 260; H36

LINZ, Terralink NZ Ltd, 1996, MapColl 830cba/1977-/26119, Sourced from University of Auckland. Crown Copyright reserved.
Wellington: LINZ, Terralink NZ Ltd, 1996, MapColl 830cba/1977-/26119, Sourced from University of Auckland. Crown Copyright reserved.

An example of the national 1:50,000 topographic NZMS 260 series. The first map in this series appeared in 1977. Apart from the change to metric measurements, the NZMS 260 maps featured new sheetlines and a new map projection, New Zealand Map Grid (NZMG). There were several design and presentation changes, including the introduction of sharper relief shading and a sans-serif typeface. Contours are at twenty metre intervals.

Unfolding the Map

Te Ahumairangi Ground Floor of the National Library, Wellington, until October 2017

The exhibition is open for viewing from 8.30am – 4.45pm Monday – Saturday.

Related Exhibition: What's in a name?

Tiakiwai Lower Ground Floor, Wellington, until October 2017

Aotearoa New Zealand has over 50,000 place names. Names that celebrate people, describe our landscape and acknowledge our diverse cultural roots.

They are a powerful record of our history and our encounters within Aotearoa New Zealand. This exhibition looks at how places are named, what some of those names refer to, and some quirky facts about place names.

Also open for viewing 8.30am – 4.45pm Monday - Saturday

Free Public Programmes

A full programme of talks and other events is being developed to accompany the exhibitions. 

Visit our events page to see details of events.

School Visits

We offer curriculum-based learning programmes for school groups of any year level. Although bookings are required, these programmes are free of charge.

Email kate.potter@dia.govt.nz to arrange a visit.