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.
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.
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.