The International Exhibitions and Museum Victoria

One of the forerunners of Museum Victoria, the Industrial and Technological Museum, was closely associated with the great nineteenth century movement of ‘World Fairs’ or International Exhibitions.

During the nineteenth century, industrialising countries and colonising powers vied with each other to promote their technological inventions and achievements. At a series of International Exhibitions, new developments in manufacturing, science and fine arts, and recent discoveries from the ‘new world’, were presented to an international audience. The first such exhibition was held at the Crystal Palace, London in 1851. During the next fifty years, cities like Paris, Dublin, Calcutta, Philadelphia, Chicago, Melbourne and Sydney held exhibitions where exhibiting countries showed their products to a wider world.

The 1866 Intercolonial Exhibition

In 1866, Melbourne organised its first Intercolonial Exhibition, held in a specially built ‘Great Hall’ on a site behind the State Library’s Queens Hall in Swanston Street. The Australian colonies, with New Zealand and New Caledonia, exhibited their manufacturing, mineral, agricultural and timber resources.

At the end of the Exhibition, the Commissioners recommended that an Industrial Museum be founded in Melbourne, for ‘public instruction and the technical education of Victorian mechanics and artisans’. The Museum was to include displays of samples of materials used in manufacturing, and models of machinery that could inform and educate visitors. The Industrial and Technological Museum was opened in 1870 in the Great Hall.

Early Collections

A large number of models of mining machinery, as used in Victoria and Europe, were transferred from the National Museum. These models had been collected since 1856, and they had helped inform gold seekers travelling to the Victorian gold fields.

The nucleus of the Economic Botany collection came from exhibits at the 1866 Intercolonial Exhibition. This collection was further developed during the 1870s and 1880s, to promote Victoria’s agricultural and timber industries. Museum staff prepared exhibits of Victorian dyes, tans, cork, and medicinal products, and made wax models of fruit and vegetables. These made the rounds of exhibitions in London, Sydney, Philadelphia, Calcutta, Paris and Melbourne. Eighty-three wonderful timber samples, each decorated by May Vale with a fine illustration of the tree’s leaf and flower, were widely exhibited.

The International Exhibitions of the 1880s

At the Melbourne International Exhibition of 1880-81, Melbourne promoted itself as a sophisticated industrial city. Architect Joseph Reed designed the Melbourne Exhibition Building for the occasion. With its tall dome, the monumental structure was the highest building in the city. The exhibition was a product of the optimism, enthusiasm and energy of the people of Melbourne at the beginning of the ‘boom of the 1880s’.

Germany, France, Prussia, Britain, and the United States of America all sent extensive exhibits to Melbourne. The British Court featured carpets, upholstery, chemicals, hardware, paperhangings, carriages, leathergoods and weighing machines. The Americans offered agricultural machinery, barbed wire, lawnmowers, cottons and electric lights. There were exhibits of lace, furniture, manchester, tiles, and armaments, and there was always something new to see or do.

The largest display came from the colony of Victoria. An extensive collection of heavy locomotives from the Phoenix Foundry of Ballarat and a heavy freight engine from the Victorian Railway Workshops demonstrated the colony’s industrial manufacturing capacity. There were displays of Victorian wine, and a huge shape representing the amount of Victorian gold mined since 1851. There were artworks, craft displays, and a Fern Gully complete with a flowing fountain made in France. Over 1.3 million visits were made to the Exhibition.

Photo of displays at the 1880 Exhibition

Displays from New South Wales at the 1880 Exhibition.
Photographer: Ludovico Hart / Source: Museum Victoria

The Centennial Exhibition of 1888 was even larger than the earlier one. Temporary annexes filled the gardens to the north of the Exhibition Building, and nearly 40 countries sent exhibits. There was a working dairy, a large quartz-crushing stamper battery, displays of schoolrooms and curriculum materials from throughout the world, paintings and sculpture from Europe and Australia, and an extensive musical programme. There were about two million visits to this exhibition.

The Exhibitions and Museum Victoria

Some exhibits from these exhibitions were acquired by the Industrial and Technological Museum, and are now part of Museum Victoria’s collections. They are an eclectic lot: model boats from the Straits Settlement, Minton tiles for home decoration, bars made from pig iron and steel, mineral specimens and samples of rice, rubber, sago and timber …. Later curators have continued to acquire objects that were first displayed in a Melbourne exhibition, and some of these are on display in ‘Windows on Victoria’ in the Australia Gallery.

Further Reading

Dunstan, D. (ed.) 1996. Victorian Icon: The Royal Exhibition Building Melbourne. The Exhibition Trustees.

G. Davison, 1989. ‘Festivals of Nationhood: The International Exhibitions’ in S.L.Goldberg and F.B.Smith, eds. Australian Cultural History, Cambridge University Press, pp.158 – 177.

Comments (24)

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Maree Walker 31 October, 2009 15:48
Very interesting reading which has peaked my interest in finding information about a flax exhibit by Francis Doran (Great Grand Father)of Gippsland who won awards at the exhibition building 1887/1888. Do you have any suggestions of where I can find information about exhibits as all his flax growing certificates have been destroyed in the Gippsland fires of the 1890's regards Maree Walker (nee Doran)
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Discovery Centre 2 November, 2009 12:58

Hi there, thanks for your enquiry regarding your ancestor's exhibition at the REB. We have referred the enquiry to one of the curators in our History & Technology department, who will get back to us with an answer very soon.

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Discovery Centre 19 November, 2009 10:01

Official records published at the close of the Melbourne exhibitions of 1880-1881 and 1888-1889 contain listings of all exhibitors with short descriptions of displays and prizes. The titles are: Melbourne International Exhibition, 1880-1881: Official record containing introduction, history of exhibition, description of exhibition and exhibits, official awards of Commissioners and catalogue of exhibits. And Official record of the Melbourne Centennial International Exhibition, Melbourne 1888-1889. These are held at State Library of Victoria and can be found in its catalogue.

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william Scott 11 April, 2010 14:27
I am trying to establish the date of what I recall as an engineering exhibition I attended with my father during the mid to late 1940,s . I also recall riding on a model steam train at this exhibition. Can you help Regards Bill Scott
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Discovery Centre 13 April, 2010 10:23

Hi William, was the exhibition in Melbourne?  Do you remember where?  This may help with the detective work!

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Simon Whitlock 23 September, 2010 06:34
Hello. Trying to trace any info/pictures of the display and stand by the Belleek Pottery, Fermangh, Ireland who exhibited in 1880.
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Discovery Centre 5 October, 2010 10:44

Hi Simon,

Belleek didn't exhibit under that name. There is a listing for 'M'Birney,D., & Co., Fermanagh.- Porcelain and china ware' in Melbourne International Exhibition, 1880-1881. Official Record ; this company was awarded a Third Order of Merit (certificate) for it's pottery display.

Hope this helps.

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Mandy Farrell 4 December, 2010 09:55
Henry Henty bought an Indian Tea House at the 1880 exhibition, this structure later became a part of Ruyton Girls' school in Kew, I am trying to find any pictures/photos for research, Mandy Farrell
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Discovery Centre 9 December, 2010 15:04
Interesting enquiry, Mandy! We've sent you an email.
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Elisabetta Guario 18 February, 2011 05:03
I was wondering if you have any information on visitors to the Exhibitions? Specifically if they were mostly locals or did people travel from around Australia and from overseas to attend? Many thanks!
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Sharon Willmott 23 May, 2011 21:11
Hi, I am interested in finding out what Indigenous displays were part of the Melbourne 1866 Intercolonial Exhibitions. There are bust currently on display in the musuem but were there of exhibits during the exhibiton in 1866. Thank you Sharon Willmott
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Lloyd Pitcher 27 May, 2011 14:28
Hello. I wish to know if my great grandfather, Archibald Murray and his brother, Hugh Cameron Murray, both Wood Carvers from Sydney NSW, placed any entries of their craft in the Melbourne Exhibition of 1880-1881.
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Barbara Male. 2 June, 2011 17:12
I am trying to locate a picture of any of eight horsedrawn carriages belonging to Edw Hills that were sent from Britain for the International Exhibition of 1888 - 1889.
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karen storey 24 June, 2011 07:58
was there a large ferris wheel at the 1880 exhibition as I have a paperweight and it shows a very large one, with it came a small boomerang with exhibition building melbourne and a painted exhibintion building on the front and what looks like pokerwork ? im wondering if they are connected and also are you interested in them for your museum
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bon 15 September, 2011 18:08
was a painting by vidal on display at the centenial exhibition 1888
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John Petersen 13 November, 2011 16:15
It seems to me that Museum Victoria struggles to find suitable ongoing uses for the Royal Exhibition Building and find engaging ways to interpret it. I can't understand why the viewing deck is not conserved so that visitors can enjoy the vistas over the gardens and experience a key feature of the building under the domes. The public safety aspects would need to be addressed but it should be achievable. I also can't understand why the reinstatement of some of the objects from the international exhibition can't be reinstated to the heritage context of the building, in particular the robust ones. Secure display cases could have environmental controls incorporated into them - as per the new Newcastle Regional Museum. I find the Museum's interpretaton of the building dull and conservative. A world heritage listed building (and its associated collection which should have been part of the world heritage listing)needs a more engaging, adventurous and imaginative approach. Film and images (opening of first parliament) could also be used to good effect. It could be a premier tourist attraction in Melbourne but it is not.
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Discovery Centre 17 November, 2011 13:17

Thank you for your comments, John. We passed this on to Museum Victoria staff with specialist knowledge on the Royal Exhibition Building and the International Exhibitions, and they have responded to your comments as follows:

Your comments raise a number of important issues, and I hope this response helps explain Museum Victoria’s position and approach to managing the Royal Exhibition Building (REB).

The REB continues to operate as a working building, and it is one of the principal reasons for the building and grounds receiving World Heritage Listing in 2004. The building supports a spectrum of trade shows, fairs, cultural and community events that are vital to the ongoing sustainability of the REB.

Museum Victoria would be interested in reinstating the dome promenade in the future. Meeting public safety, access and heritage issues is a major challenge, and the cost will be substantial. We receive no ongoing funding to do this. Over the past few years we have spent the periodic funds provided to us by the Federal and State government, and from revenue earned from commercial events on priority projects such as re-flooring the REB , fire-proofing the REB, and reinstating the heritage gardens.

In July this year, we installed a new display in the building. It features 15 image-rich graphic panels that chart the history of the building and gardens, and an interactive panel which contains a further 100 + images from the museum’s collection and film footage of the opening of the first Federal parliament of Australia. Our hope is that the 440,000+ visitors who visit the building for commercial events will be able to engage with this history, as well as our visitors who attend the building on one of our guide-led daily tours.

We opened the doors to the building for Melbourne’s Open House in July this year, and on that occasion we launched a short documentary film about the restoration work that has been undertaken in the gardens over the past four years. The projects discussed in the film illustrate Museum Victoria’s and the City of Melbourne’s commitment to ensuring that the building and grounds remain an integral part of Melbourne’s cultural fabric.

We have a dedicated REB website with information for both museum and REB visitors, and commercial hirers. The aim of the website is to inform visitors of the building’s significant history, provide information about current and future events, and keep people up-to-date on museum projects. Information about REB related collection material is also available on Collections Online. If you type ‘Royal Exhibition Building’ into the search field, you will pull-up close to 3400 records. And lastly, there is a display about Melbourne’s two international Exhibitions in Melbourne Story at Melbourne Museum, where objects from those exhibitions are permanently on display.
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Lynne Dore 22 February, 2012 16:00
I am trying to find any catalogues of gargoyles produced circa 1888-1900 by the Victoria Terra Cotta Lumber Company Pty. Ltd., located at either Brunswick or Wandong. The company produced these for the Temperance Pagoda at Flemington Racecourse 1889 (see photo D. Bennetts, Melbourne's Yesterdays pg 32). The company won a silver award at the Centennial Exhibition 1888-89 for their Terra Cotta Lumber blocks and I thought perhaps they may have exhibited their gargoyles there as well. I would like to find out more information about their production of gargoyles but have had not luck so far. Your help would be appreciated.
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Peter A Meyer 6 April, 2012 10:11
An ancestor, Jonathan Meyer, reportedly cut and transported a large tree from the Dandenongs to the Exhibition Building for the Centennial Exhibition of 1888. Are there any photos of this tree which supposedly remained on the site well into the 20th century?
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Discovery Centre 12 April, 2012 16:34

Hi Peter, there are no photos of this exhibit in the museum’s collection, nor reference to it in the Official record of the Melbourne Centennial International Exhibition, Melbourne 1888-1889 (although this is not to say that it was not exhibited). It might be worth contacting the City of Melbourne, as it is responsible for the ongoing management of Carlton Gardens, and hold a terrific collection of images of the gardens over their 150 year history.

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Sheryle Makarucha 12 June, 2012 23:27
Have a drinking glass that is engraved with the following wording - Melbourne Exhibition E Black 1889 E Black is a family member and wondering whether the glass was a souvenir from the exhibition.
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Discovery Centre 13 June, 2012 10:53
Hi Sheryle,
The Discovery Centre has a free identification and research service. You are welcome to send images of the glass to us so we can try and find out more about it.
Lois Soden 16 February, 2013 16:33
Where might I get information, if any exists, about the 1866 exhibition. Aparently my ancester, Joseph Soden a photographer, may have had photos on display.
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Discovery Centre 19 February, 2013 14:05
Hello Lois - we have conferred with our Senior Curator on this, and we've discovered that a catalogue of exhibitors at the 1866 exhibition has been digitised by the SLV and is available to view online: www.slv.vic.gov.au

Intercolonial Exhibition 1866 : official catalogue : Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, New Zealand, Western Australia, Mauritius, New Caledonia, Batavia. 

Hope this is of some help