Exhibition notes

The Melbourne Story exhibition explores the history of Melbourne from the time of earliest contact between white settlers and local Indigenous people. The exhibition consists of historical stories, artefacts, images and interactive components that illustrate the unfolding Melbourne story as seen through the eyes of its citizens – Indigenous peoples, settlers, refugees, those who found ‘the good life’ and those who struggled to survive.

The exhibition focuses on significant events, places and people, and is organised around successive periods in the city’s history.

1835-1850 Melbourne the meeting place

The meeting between John Batman and a group of Aboriginal men on a winter’s day in 1835 is regarded as the city’s foundation point. It preceded the establishment of the first European settlement that was from 1837 known as Melbourne. This section of the exhibition traces the emergence of the city:

  • laying down Hoddle’s central grid of Melbourne’s streets;
  • the arrival of the first British immigrants, the establishment of flour mills and iron foundries;
  • the first election of local landholders as representatives of the Port Phillip District in the NSW Legislative Council;
  • the granting of city status to the settlement on the authority of Queen Victoria; and
  • royal assent to the separation of Victoria from New South Wales (1850).

Land that had supported Aboriginal people for thousands of years was transformed and claimed by Europeans. These settlers brought diseases with them that contributed to the decimation of the local Aboriginal population within two decades. At the same time, streets began to be laid, and the first buildings were constructed. However, the migrants, who poured off the ships in Port Phillip Bay looking for a better life often found that harsh conditions awaited them. Housing was limited and rough, the settlement was plagued by drunkenness and disorder, and while some laid the foundations of future wealth, others found only hardship and sorrow.

1850-1880 Gold Town

Hot on the heels of separation from New South Wales and self-government for Victoria came the discovery of gold, and the massive impact of the gold rushes on Melbourne’s development. This section of the exhibition explores how the city’s population increased, swollen not only by the arrival of gold-seekers en route to the fields, but also by the return of many who did not find the wealth they sought. An estimated half a million people arrived in Victoria between 1850 and 1860. The infant city struggled to absorb this influx and to provide housing, services and security. Men outnumbered women two to one, drunken diggers filled streets where gun shots echoed and open sewage drains polluted the air, and child mortality was high. Within a short time, the demands of diggers and the wealth generated by the rush began to transform Melbourne. Cobb and Co coaches pulling out of Bourke St to connect the city to emerging country towns were joined in 1862 by developing rail and telegraph services.

But the growing wealth of the country also bred fear. How was Melbourne and its burgeoning wealth to be protected? Fortifications and gun batteries appeared alongside more reassuring monuments to growth, like the Melbourne Zoo and the National Museum. These institutions were testament not only to the city’s new wealth and civic pride, but also to the determination of its inhabitants to impose a distinctly European presence on an old land.

The foundations of an Australian version of civic life and governance were laid in these years. These foundations were based on the concessions won by miners in the Eureka uprising (including - eventually - a vote in the new Parliament), but also on the restrictions imposed on Chinese immigration, and the re-settlement of Aboriginal people on stations and missions. This re-settlement program was a response to both the failure of an early system of protection of Aboriginal people, and the desire to control and ‘civilise’ them.

1880-1900 Boom and Bust City & Little Lon

In 1880, Melbourne was home to an international exhibition, marking its new place on the world stage. The new Royal Exhibition Building was a powerful symbol of its booming economy and confidence. New suburbs burgeoned, land prices sky-rocketed, grand commercial buildings and imposing mansions sprang up round the city. Melbourne took a leading role in the movement towards federation, hosting the Australasian Federation Conference in 1890.

Melbourne was now a city larger than most European capitals, and money was poured into the lavish decoration of banks, hotels and coffee palaces. One of the chief delights of the city was the rainbow-arched Coles Book Arcade, a colourful, joyous place in the city centre where patrons could read as long as they liked without pressure to buy. Some of the chief attractions of the Arcade, including the Coles Little Men and the Mechanical Hen, are shown in the exhibition.

In 1891, however, the economy crashed. Its massive expansion had been in no small part fuelled by land speculation; now it was replaced by Victoria’s worst depression. Banks collapsed, unemployment bit deep, and families were evicted from their homes and torn apart by poverty. Soup kitchens appeared to feed the city’s poor, and marches on Parliament by thousands of unemployed workers replaced the grand parades of the previous decade. Representatives of the Aboriginal mission at Coranderrk petitioned the government for the right to come and go freely and “not to be bound down by the protection of the board” (that is, the Central Board for the Protection of the Aborigines).

The area of the exhibition recreating life in Little Lonsdale St in the 1890’s introduces students to what has been revealed of the city’s past through historical archaeology. It also opens a window on the flip side of Marvellous Melbourne – overcrowded, struggling, multi-cultural (long before the term was coined), and teeming with life – and death.

1900-1920 Melbourne and the Nation

This section of the exhibition explores a twenty year period of momentous change in Melbourne.

It opened on the highest of notes with Melbourne becoming the temporary capital of the newly federated nation, while the search for and building of a permanent national capital took place over the next twenty seven years. It closed on the back of years of trauma and misery, the city (and the nation) reeling from the massive loss of life (60,000 Australians) inflicted by World War I. The intervening years saw a consolidation of a national identity which took many and often contradictory forms. The first act passed by the new federal government, the Immigration Restriction Act (1901) established the legislative basis of the White Australia Policy by restricting the entry of non-European immigrants. This impacted heavily on the large Chinese population of the city. The following year, when Dame Nellie Melba made a triumphant return to her home town as a supreme artist on the world stage, Melburnians rejoiced; at the same time there was an ever stronger desire to embrace and preserve the Australian environment as a symbol of the national identity.

The Sunshine Harvester, the brain child of industrialist H.V. Mckay, lent its name not only to Sunshine, the suburb Mckay created to house his workforce, but also to the landmark legal judgment that created the first basic wage in Australia. In 1908, Victoria became the last of the Australian states to grant women the vote. At the same time, Kew Asylum continued to contain in severely overcrowded circumstances an ever-growing population of individuals with intellectual disabilities, dementia, alcoholism or mental illness.

The city was changing too. New land was opened up for settlement both on the city’s outskirts and in rural areas, particularly for returning soldiers.

The return of the soldiers, however, was a mixed blessing, as they brought with them the devastating ‘Spanish flu’. The Royal Exhibition Building, which had been the triumphant scene of the first federal Parliament, was now converted to a hospital to deal with the pandemic.

1920-1945 Electric City

In the decades following World War One, Melbourne was transformed by new opportunities and challenges. The “war to end all wars” was over, and few could yet see the shadow it cast into the future. It was time to enjoy life, and Melbourne was electric! Demand for housing grew; new home styles appeared, the suburbs spread, and a growing network of trams and trains linked them to the city, made possible by the coming of electricity.

Not only did technology begin to fill homes with undreamed-of labour saving devices, but it brought services that today are taken for granted: electric lights, flushing toilets, modern gas stoves and telephones, at least for some. And it brought new forms of entertainment. Although cinema attendance was hard hit by the Depression, it flourished again during World War Two with the influx of American servicemen into Melbourne. The moon seat and other attractions of Luna Park, first opened in 1912, drew ever larger crowds. The iconic Big Dipper opened in 1923 and closed in 1988. However, courtesy of film footage from the 20s and 30s, visitors to the Melbourne Story exhibition can sit in an original carriage and experience the thrills of the period.

The miracle of radio created opportunities for new kinds of family gatherings. From 1924, cricket tests, news and music programs, and comic and dramatic radio serials were broadcast into homes. The Melbourne Cup was first heard on the radio in 1926, and it brought Phar Lap’s 1930 Cup win to a city by then in the grip of the Great Depression. Melbourne enthusiastically embraced the cinema too, delighting first in silent movies, and then the fabulous ‘talkies’. Visitors to the exhibition can relive the early years of the film industry with a 28 minute film experience taking in the 1920s, 30s and 40s.

Hard times and great political and social change lay ahead. Federal parliament had moved to its new home in Canberra by the time the Depression started in 1929. Almost a decade of economic turmoil changed the face of Melbourne. By 1933, a third of the city’s unemployed men had been out of work for three years. With no unemployment benefits, families were often pulled apart – evicted from their homes, many were forced to queue for food handouts and shelter.

When the Centenary of Melbourne was celebrated in 1935, the city was still emerging from the Great Depression hoping for a more prosperous and optimistic future. However, World War Two was just around the corner.

It too brought tremendous change – both hardship and opportunity. The manufacturing sector boomed courtesy of wartime expenditure; women took the jobs of the many men of fighting age who’d joined up (only to lose their jobs when the men returned). Rationing, “victory” gardens, air-raid shelters, drills, and even the evacuation of some city children to rural areas also became facts of life. Over 40,000 Australians died in WW2, and many thousands more were injured. The war and its aftermath changed Melbourne forever.

1945-1980 Suburban City

The post-war years brought enormous changes to Melbourne. The arrival of a million immigrants over a twenty year period, beginning with ‘displaced persons’ from war-ravaged Europe, ensured both a cultural and a physical transformation in the life of the city. Thousands of new homes were needed. Inner suburban areas were bulldozed and replaced with high-rise public housing for poorer families, Inner city industry was pushed to the city’s outskirts, where new suburbs and housing estates mushroomed. The booming post-war economy put the dream of home ownership within reach for many, although years often went by before roads were paved and other services connected.

In 1948 the first Holden car was made in Melbourne. Before long, cars became more affordable, and more plentiful. New roads and freeways were needed. New suburbs and a rapidly expanding population spelled other changes too. The small business which had served inner city neighbourhoods were increasingly replaced by sprawling shopping malls. The first, at Chadstone, opened in 1960. The massive process of demolition, construction and expansion was not always welcomed and often met with public protest.

It was an era of “firsts” and “lasts”. In 1954 Queen Elizabeth became the first reigning monarch to visit Australia and in 1970 the international airport opened at Tullamarine. In 1967, the last man to be executed in Australia, Ronald Ryan, was hanged at Pentridge, and ten years later the last ocean liner carrying assisted migrants docked in Melbourne.

Television had arrived just in time to screen the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games, the first held in Australia. Television wrought deep changes in the life of the country. While early sets were expensive and programming simple and unsophisticated, it wasn’t long before television ownership was widespread. On the one hand it urged us toward consumerism, helping to build demand for the latest products; on the other it “brought the world to the living room” and proved to be critical in turning the tide of public opinion on a range of issues such as the war in Vietnam. TV also ushered in new times for Australian music and youth culture, with bands like the Skyhooks and music programs such as Bandstand drawing huge audiences.

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