The Royal Exhibition Building

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.

Royal Exhibition Building

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

The Victorian Court at the 1880-81 International Exhibition
Source: Museum Victoria

The building

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’.

Royal Exhibition Building before 1901

The Royal Exhibition Building before 1901
Source: National Library of Australia

Many uses

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.

Comments (17)

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Tricia Hilder 4 August, 2009 12:30
I have a diary containing a 16 year old's impressions of the Victorian Inter-Colonial Exhibition of 1875. Can you tell me the venue for this exhibition?
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Discovery Centre 4 August, 2009 13:55

Hi there, thanks for your question – I’ve referred your query to the Museum’s Senior Curator for Institutional and Public Life for her advice – we’ll get back to you soon with some more information.

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Discovery Centre 4 August, 2009 15:19

Hi again Tricia. The Curator for Public and Institutional Life has advised that the 1875 Intercolonial Exhibition was was held at the Melbourne Public Library, a complex of buildings on Swanston Street between La Trobe and Little Lonsdale Streets. At the time, the building complex also housed the Museum of Art and Picture Gallery!

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Jacques Barrah 12 January, 2010 12:03
This building is fantastic. But how many people out there know that Melbourne's most iconic building was victim to the wrecker's ball? The grand Royal Exhibition Building also narrowly escaped the wrecker's ball.
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Stefan Mystkowski 26 April, 2010 15:13
Family research tells us that my wife's great uncle Leon Pole was one of the painters involved in painting the murals prior to it's use as Federal Parliament in 1901. Do you have any information on his involvement in the project?
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Discovery Centre 28 April, 2010 10:15

Hi Stefan, there is a fantastic book titled 'Victorian Icon, The Royal Exhibition Building' by David Dunstan that makes some references to Leon 'Sonny' Pole and the work that he did.  This book is available in the Discovery Centre.

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Yvonne Courtine 24 September, 2010 05:27
In the course of family research I am trying to trace information on Amos William Connor, b. 1828 in Hampshire,England. There is a mention of a person of this name in an article in the 'Argus' newspaper dated the 21st September 1880 referring to a Mr Amos Williams Conner of Rosslyn Street, who was complaining about the construction of the sunlights in the Central Hall, Parliament House, and in the Lecture Hall, Little Collins Street. It appears that these sunlights were erected by Amos but that he considered them dangerous. Is it possible that you have any further information on this man which would help me to determine whether he is of my family? Many thanks.
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Discovery Centre 26 September, 2010 10:25
There's no reference to this person in our collection, Yvonne, but we have several tools that might help with your family history research. Infosheets, websites and library resources on this topic can be explored at this part of our website. You should also explore the resources available via the Public Record Office Victoria for information pertaining to the state government of Victoria, including parliament house. I hope this information is useful to you - good luck with your research.
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Lucas 29 June, 2013 14:06
This may sound unusual, however, were dirt bike race days that ran around the exhibition buildings held?
Mary Doland 29 November, 2010 12:23
My husband's GG Grandfather (a master joiner) entered in the opening exhibition, a magnificent cabinet that he had made for the exhibition and it won first prize. We are fortunate to have the cabinet handed down to us as a treasured family heirloom. His name was Frederick Maxwell. We'd love to know if you have any records of the exhibits in this first exhibition in the building. We could perhaps take a photo of the cabinet if you wish. Many thanks Mary Doland Lakes Entrance, Victoria
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Shawn McGuffin 13 September, 2013 02:13
Hi Mary, If you are getting this message would you kindly contact me re McGuffins from Newry, Ireland in Australia.
Discovery Centre 29 November, 2010 15:29
Hi Mary, your cabinet sounds lovely! Official records published at the close of the Melbourne exhibitions of 1880-1881 contain listings of all exhibitors with short descriptions of displays and prizes. A copy of 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 is held at State Library of Victoria and you should be able to find him listed there.
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Alaina Bottegal 18 May, 2011 10:43
My father told me of attending the Exhibition Youth Centre (EYC) at the Royal Exhibition Buildings in the 40's. Do you have any information regarding this at your exhibit?
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Robin Matthews 17 September, 2011 17:21
I believe that I hold two items that were displayed at the 1888 exhibition (possibly the 1880-1, but I do not think so). In 2003 I was advised the following re searching for confirmation: "You will be able to request access to this book at the SLV Trescowthick Information Desk at the State Library of Victoria. For your information, the full title of the catalogue is as follows: "Official records of the Centennial Exhibition, Melbourne, 1888-89". Is this still the case?
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kerry coomes 30 September, 2011 19:26
i have just visited this building. Thank goodness it has been saved and restored for future generations. Unfortunately i did not have time to book a tour. it is such an important part of history
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Discovery Centre 8 October, 2011 14:58

Hi Robin, the information is still essentially the same. You can phone through to Rare Books to order a copy for viewing, or order one from onsite storage. You will need a valid reader’s ticket. If you don’t have one, you will need to go to the information desk at the State Library to order it. The State Library website will have all the information regarding visiting the SLV.

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Rodney Wright 16 July, 2014 18:32
My Mothers Family History has stories that my Great Grandfather Charles Herbert Shepherd, who was a Master Plumber,worked on the construction of the dome of the Royal Exhibition Building around 1880. My Mother remembers seeing a photo (long lost) of her Grandfather sitting with other workers on the edge of the dome. They were dressed in suits and bowler hats. Mum believes that the photo would have been taken to commemorate the dome's completion.I would love to find a copy of this photo for her.
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