In June 2004, Melbourne’s Royal Exhibition Building became the first building in Australia to receive World Heritage status. Together with the surrounding Carlton Gardens, it was one of the first three places to be listed on the Australian Government’s National Heritage List, in July 2004. The Building is the largest item in Museum Victoria’s collection, and is important in the interpretation of the history of Melbourne, Victoria and Australia.
Photographer: Frank Coffa / Source: Museum Victoria
Site of two world fairs
The Exhibition Building is a product of the optimism, enthusiasm and energy of the people of Melbourne in the late nineteenth century. They wanted to put their city on the world map. Since the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London in 1851, world fairs promoted new industrial products and showed the latest scientific and industrial achievements. Melburnians planned an International Exhibition that would showcase their products and publicise the economic opportunities presented by Victoria’s prosperity.
The new Exhibition Building was opened in 1880 for the Melbourne International Exhibition of 1880-81. It attracted more than 1.3 million visitors over eight months. A subsequent Centennial International Exhibition of 1888-89 was even larger; temporary annexes were built from the Building to the northern boundary of Carlton Gardens.
The Victorian Court at the 1880-81 International Exhibition
Source: Museum Victoria
The Exhibition Building is the only surviving ‘Great Hall’ from a nineteenth century international exhibition that is still used for exhibitions. The architect was Joseph Reed, of the firm Reed and Barnes. Reed’s was a grand design, influenced by Rundbogenstil, a round-arched architectural style combining elements from Byzantine, Romanesque, Lombardic and Italian Renaissance buildings. The dome’s design was influenced by Brunelleschi’s fifteenth century cathedral at Florence.
When it was built, the Great Hall was the largest building in Australia, and the highest building in Melbourne. It is brick, set on a bluestone base, and has long central naves and stunted transepts. There are four triumphal entrance porticoes, one on each side. The Building is set in ceremonial gardens, designed by Reed and William Sangster, and a wide avenue lined with plane trees links the front, southern entrance of the building with the city beyond. There was a viewing platform around the dome that allowed visitors to survey the progress of the booming city.
Opening of Parliament
In 1901, when the Australian colonies federated to become a nation, the Great Hall became the site of the opening of the first Federal Parliament. John Ross Anderson’s decorative scheme for the celebrations has been restored and can now be seen again. Murals under the dome represent ‘Federation’, ‘Government’, ‘The Arts applied to Peace’ and ‘The Arts applied to War’.
The Royal Exhibition Building before 1901
Source: National Library of Australia
The Building has hosted a great variety of public events. Art shows, concerts, magic lantern shows, bicycle races, tugs of war, Olympic wrestling, baby shows, dog and poultry shows … all sorts of entertainments have been held there. An aquarium and museum occupied the Eastern Annexe for over sixty years.
In 1919 the Great Hall was commandeered to become a hospital for patients suffering in the Spanish Influenza pandemic. Charity dances, state receptions, musical pageants, evangelistic missions, and balls have all been held there. An annexe housed the first exhibitions of the Australian War Memorial, and during the Second World War, trainee technicians from the Royal Australian Air Force lived in the Building and tried to sleep in the echoing hall. After the war, a migrant reception centre was established in the grounds, and many new immigrants spent their first evenings in Australia in the shadow of the building.
Many Melburnians remember visiting the Exhibition Building for the Home Shows (first held in 1936) and the Motor Shows (first held in 1912). Here people saw the latest trends in home and garden design, and drooled over exciting imported cars. School and University examinations are still held there, and rock concerts, garden shows and receptions are regular events.
From a ‘White Elephant’ to World Heritage
From the 1940s, little consideration was given to the historical significance of the building, which became dilapidated and was often called ‘a white elephant’. However, a gradual appreciation of its heritage value meant that restoration work commenced in 1985. The Federation interior scheme was restored in the 1990s, and the building is now under the care of Museum Victoria. World Heritage listing ensures that the Building will continue to serve the people of Victoria into the future.
The Heritage Collection
Museum Victoria continues to collect material related to the Building. We are particularly interested in objects that were displayed in the great nineteenth century exhibitions, and souvenirs, programmes and ephemera from events in the Building.