Digging Up the Past


Dr. Charlotte Smith, Senior Curator: The Exhibition Building was built in 1879 for the Melbourne International Exhibition which opened in 1880. There was a Melbourne Centennial International Exhibition held in 1888-1889 and at the time the building was extended with temporary annexing which was moved in 1889. Then the opening of the first Federal Parliament was held here in 1901, May, 1901. In 1919, the building became an exhibition hospital to deal with patients who were suffering from the Spanish flu.In the early 1920s the first Australian War Memorial Museum opened here.

In the 1940s during the Second World War the building was used as a barracks for the RAAF. In 1950s and 60s there was actually a migrant reception centre. There were also Olympic events held here in 1956 and then in the 1970s to late 79 the eastern annexe was demolished and a new Centennial Hall to mark the 100th anniversary of the building was built. At that time in 1980 the Centennial Building became the Royal Exhibition building.

In 1996, Museum Victoria took over custodianship of the building and we have been responsible for managing it ever since.

The Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens were World Heritage listed in July 2004. There are a number of reasons why the building and grounds were heritage listed but mainly it is because it is the only extant 19th century great hall that is still being used for original purpose and that is as an event venue so we still have events in this building all year round and still within its original palace garden setting so it really is a unique structure.

Barrie Gallacher, Lanscape Architect: The gardens were reserved back in the early 1850s along with many of Melbourne's public gardens and it really was a wasteland to start off with. It became a depositry for night soil because it was operated by the City of Melbourne and that was a place that they utilise to dispose of what was becoming a real nuisance to them.

Angela Hill, Senior Parks Planner: The gardens was set aside in the 1850s by Governor La Trobe along with many other areas around the central part of Melbourne and it was just a garden until 1879 when the government chose to site their new exhibition hall here so that they could hold an international exhibition.

Barrie Gallacher: The plans were drawn up for both the buildings and the grounds by Joseph Reed of Reed and Barnes, architects. Subsequent to that the landscape gardening was given to a person called William Sangster and he had been involved in Como, he had been involved in Rupertswood in Sunbury which was owned by sir William Clark who was actually the chairman of the Exhibition Commission. Maybe a coincidence but someone stood up for him and said "Look he's done 9 out of 10 gardens for all the gentlemen in Melbourne so we had no problem with him getting the job."

Angela Hill: Over the years the gardens have reflected the fortunes and misfortunes of Melbourne in that when the Exhibition Building was built it was a time of after the gold rush and there was a lot of prosperity followed by depression and Carlton Gardens also reflected that over the early part of the 1900s. The gardens were in a fair state of disrepair but also used a lot by homeless people - at one stage we had a homeless shelter right in the middle of the gardens. It is also a place that is known for its connection to Aboriginal people and is particularly in the 30s and 40s a lot of Aboriginal groups came and sat under the trees and made discussions and had meetings that led to the development of campaigns and services which is still with us today.

Barrie Gallacher: In the 1956 Olympic Games most of the site was taken over and that is when the western forecourt was asphalted over. In 2004 I think it was that the City of Melbourne prepared a master plan for the gardens and part of that was the reconstruction of the western forecourt and the reconstruction ofthe par terre gardens.

Dr. Charlotte Smith: The decision to reconstruct the 1880 garden in the western side of the building western forecourt was taken because the basic layout of the gardens as they are today is that put in place by Joseph Reed the architect and William Sangster in 1880. We have enough archeological evidence after the excavation to reconstruct the garden to that period and there is enough pictorial and historical evidence as well to actually be able to reconstruct something that is really faithful to the time period.

Barrie Gallacher: We commenced working on the project in November 2009 and this was at the time that the archeological dig was being carried out. So we did get some feedback from the archeological dig including some preliminary results of their soils analysis which were looking at pollen types and to see if they could determine from what they suspected was garden soil areas what the planting suite might have been.

Dr. Charlotte Smith: The archeological excavation was really done for two reasons. Firstly, of course we're in a a World Heritage site so it is an inventory site any excavation or work that happens on the site that needs to have archeological investigations done but the other reason is of course that we actually we needed to have that physical evidence to recreate the garden.

Barrie Gallacher: We also at this time we undertook our own research to look through first of all the 1880 description of the opening of the exhibition which had a two page or so article in the Australasian written by William Sangster under a non de plume and he went to quite some lengths in describing what was in the garden including listing many, many plants. We also looked at the photographs that we could find first of all of the buildings and grounds under construction. We looked at the series of postcards held by Museum Victoria in their postcard collection to see if we can catch glimpses of garden to work out what plants might have been used and have planted. There is also a publication which lists all plants available in nurseries in Victoria from 1855 to 1899 and that was really our bible.

Mary Chapman, Project Manager: The parterre gardens are what originally and perhaps in many gardens still overseas were the way of laying out bedding displays can be looked at like a floral carpet but we with our changing climate here and certainly we weren't able to have these as floral displays of annuals changing twice a year so as you see the night or day they're perennial planting so that very particular patterns.

It was an interesting project and one that wouldn't follow the normal project manager management style that of rolling together into one project and going out for a large tender from very early on Parks Services asked that we involve the park's contractors and that we involve them at as many points in it as we could. So I broke the project up into the special risk areas. I was working through with the park planners and through the archeological component of it and then through all the tree removals and the shrub removals. From there we brought through earth works with levelling, bringing in a large amountof soil, turfing the areas, putting down the edges of the scroll gardens and the parterres themselves. Planting and establishment of course which was extremely difficult being through those drought years.

I would like to believe that the parterres in layout and shape are as exactly as they were in 1880s - that exactness was achieved by use of iron edges, steel edges which were worked out from the photographs, we were able to trace over the heritage photographs, take those into CAD drawings on to the computer and then send those straight through to the foundry so that we know we have an exact replication.

With the strength and of the project and the final outcome and perhaps somewhat of the perfection that we achieved was the ability to use specialist companies and specialist contractors and consultants and I think that was the seen in opening and when every single company came back to see it opened.

Angela Hill: One of the challenges we face as a city is adapting to climate change and I think our parks, as well as being historical assets, will become little islands of green and cool in a hot city and Carlton Gardens will be no exception to that.

Dr. Charlotte Smith: A second phase was actually to install underground water tanks. Tt transpired that we actually built one water tank with a 1.35 million litre capacity and that water tank is taking water from the roof of Exhibition Building, the hard stand areas around the Exhibition Building and also from blades outside in front of Melbourne Museum and the water is now feeding the gardens, the heritage fountains, the Milarri gardens in Melbourne Museum so it is part of the museum's sustainable practice.

Angela Hill: The installation of the water tanks under the western forecourt is just a fantastic outcome as far as Council's concerned because of the drought we have just gone through we know we have to have other sources of water, potable water to use because plants and trees don't live unless you give them some water.

Dr. Charlotte Smith: I think that the Exhibition Building in Carlton Gardens give the community a place to focus upon the successes of Victoria, you know it is a historical — it is a part of our culture and our history. It is very much a very tangible reminder of Victoria's past.

Mary Chapman: It is significant as part of the gardens and the World Heritage system that people today wandering around these gardens havesome idea of what those gardens were and what the amazing thing that we discovered in doing them that the patterns of the parterres are the patterns that are on the building itself so it was very much an integral; the building sits in this landscape.

Barrie Gallacher: The gardens in 100 years from now is a challenging thought perhaps with what's happened with this project with recycled water use off the building will enable the gardens to survive.

Dr. Charlotte Smith: The lovely thing about gardens is that they are always evolving, they are always growing. But I really hope too, that the significance of building still recognise 100 years hence - a place for Melbournians to be proud of and a place for all of our visitors to come and really understand the significance of Victoria in Late 19th Century Australia.

About this Video

This short documentary about reinstating the garden surrounds of the Royal Exhibition Building was funded by the Commonwealth Government Australian Heritage Week.
Length: 13:24