A multi-talented REB

03 May, 2009

Nurses with children outside Exhibition Building during the Spanish influenza pandemic, 1919.
Nurses with children outside Exhibition Building during the Spanish influenza pandemic, 1919.
Source: Museum Victoria

Question: I am planning to visit the Organic Expo in the Royal Exhibition Building in July and I was just wondering if the building has ever been used for any other purposes than exhibitions?

Answer: As well as being the site of Melbourne’s two International Exhibitions (Melbourne International Exhibition 1880-81 and Melbourne Centennial International Exhibition 1888-89), the Royal Exhibition Building (REB) has served a variety of purposes and hosted a number of events since its foundation stone was laid in 1879.

The REB has served as a venue for a number of social events ranging from a Christmas meal for 3000 of Melbourne’s poor provided by the Salvation Army, to a dazzling musical performance by Nellie Melba; from dances and entertainment for the troops during World War II to grand balls and banquets for royalty, the rich and the famous.
In 1885, the Trustees of the Exhibition Building opened an Aquarium in the eastern annexe, and in 1891 a Picture Gallery, Museum and Fernery were added to the Aquarium.  The Aquarium was the first in Australia, and displayed crocodiles, seals, penguins from the Antarctic, and fish from all over the world, as well as a fernery with monkeys and exotic birds.  The Museum had courts for zoology, botany, ethnology, mineralogy and entomology, and included two Egyptian mummies and some iron armour belonging to the Kelly gang.  There was also a planetarium and a children’s theatre, and moving pictures were shown from 1909.  In 1892 a Cyclorama of Early Melbourne, 38 metres long and four metres tall, opened in the Museum.  The marine life, most of the Museum’s exhibits and the records of the Trustees were lost when the Aquarium was destroyed by fire in 1953. 

On 9 May 1901, the opening of the first commonwealth parliament of Australia took place in the REB. Twelve thousand invited guests watched as the Duke of Cornwall & York officially opened parliament. For the next 25 years the Victorian parliament sat in the western annexe of the REB, whilst the Federal Government sat at Parliament House on Spring Street. 

In February 1919, the REB was transformed into a hospital to cope with the terrible “Spanish” influenza pandemic that spread around the world at the end of World War I.  The banqueting room and committee rooms were divided into cubicles to accommodate nursing staff, while other nurses slept in a nearby school or on the veranda behind the western annexe.  The patients occupied the exhibition halls: female patients between the concert platform and the dome, male patients in the great space beyond.  The basement housed a morgue, and outside the area under the grandstand became a laundry.  The hospital was capable of accommodating 1500 people and by mid-August 1919 it had treated 4046 cases, 392 of whom had died.  The temporary hospital was closed the following month when the worst of the epidemic was over in Melbourne.
The REB also housed the first displays of the Australian War Museum, opened in the eastern annexe in 1922.  In 1923, the Museum became the Australian War Memorial and the exhibition moved to Sydney in 1925. The staff and most of the collection remained in Melbourne until 1935 while the permanent site in Canberra was being prepared. 
During World War II the building was largely given over to the Royal Australian Air Force to accommodate the technicians being trained in wireless mechanics, instrument making and other trades.  Up to 700 men slept on the bare floor boards in the Great Hall on straw mattresses, to the accompaniment of bellows from the seals in the nearby Aquarium.

To celebrate its centenary, the building was granted Royal status in 1980.


Further reading

Dunstan, David, Victorian Icon: The Royal Exhibition Building Melbourne, Melbourne: The Exhibition Trustees, 1996.

Willis, Elizabeth, The Royal Exhibition Building, Melbourne: A Guide, Melbourne: Museum Victoria, 2004.

Nomination of Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens, Melbourne by the Government of Australia for Inscription on the World Heritage List, Environment Australia, 2002.

Fookes, Ronnie; Hobbs, Sue; Riddett, Robyn, A Fine Tradition of Exhibitions, Vermont: James A. Johnson, 1998.

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