State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 56 Spring 1995


London, Paris, Philadelphia … Victoria at The Great Exhibitions

Seldom, if ever, has a metropolis come into being more rapidly than did the Melbourne of the gold rush. The citizens of Victoria assembled for themselves the defining institutions of a nineteenth-century city with breathtaking speed, and at the time they were doing so, one of the newest of these institutions was the international exhibition.
The first of these, inaugurating a cycle that lasted until the turn of the century, was the Great Exhibition, held at London in 1851. This, by coincidence, was Victoria's annus mirabilis, the year in which the colony achieved its longed-for goal of political separation from New South Wales, and in which the first gold discoveries were made. A small amount of “Port Phillip wool” was shown by New South Wales at the Great Exhibition; within four years, the new colony was erecting its own exhibition building, and preparing material for the second International Exhibition, that at Paris in 1855. Victoria was to show in at least twelve such exhibitions in the next 35 years, as well as smaller colonial and intercolonial fairs. What follows is a brief survey of the key moments in this exhibiting career.

Paris 1855

The international exhibitions were conceived chiefly as a showcase for the most advanced examples of manufacturing and the applied arts. Victoria, of course, had very little to offer under these categories in 1855 and the preliminary exhibition held in Melbourne in 1854 was a bazaar of imported manufactures and local curiosities. The catalogue tantalizes us with its mention of “various specimens of artificial teeth in a glass case on a mahogany pedestal revolving by clockwork” and boots with “revolving heels”. The principal item sent on to Paris was the spectacular collection of gold nuggets, purchased by the Government on behalf of the Exhibition Commissioners for the sum of £10,000.1 The correspondent of the The times (London) reported that this display “fascinated the attention of all visitors”.2

London 1862

The prospect of representing the Colony back “home” no doubt provided an added incentive to the Victorian Commissioners preparing for this exhibition. Within a year they assembled and transported to London an impressive collection, illustrative of the Colony's primary resources and its budding manufactures. As before, a large collection of gold in various forms and other mineral samples provided one of the principal exhibits, housed this time in a large (9′×9′×15′) colonially-made case of “gothic” design. Twenty-five tons of quartz was supplied, to be crushed in a working battery of twelve colonially-manufactured stamping machines. An obelisk over 44 feet high, encrusted with plaster casts of nuggets, represented the volume of gold exported from Victoria between 1851 and 1861, while visitors to the Victorian court passed beneath an archway constructed of 50 bales of wool.
Other notable but less spectacular exhibits included the collection of painted plaster casts of fruit and vegetables, 447 specimens of Victorian woods, colonial wines, and five bottles of Victorian tomato sauce. One exhibit in which the Commissioners took particular and justifiable pride concerned the photolithographic process independently invented in Victoria by J. W. Osborne in 1859. As well as the samples of photolithography on display, the season ticket to the Exhibition was printed by this process, rather than the movable type that would normally have been used for such an item.
News of the disastrous failure of the Burke and Wills expedition had reached Melbourne in November 1861, while the Commissioners were finalizing their arrangements. They deftly incorporated the tragedy into their preparations,
and so it was that Europeans who had only heard the story could now gaze upon examples of the pack saddles and camel shoes used by the explorers, as well as samples of the dried meat and nardoo seed that had sustained, and ultimately failed to sustain, them.
The Victorian Exhibition Commissioners were in no doubt as to the benefits that could result from exhibiting. Their Chairman Redmond Barry, opening the preliminary display in Melbourne in 1861, stated that the distribution of a

Victorian Court of 1861 Melbourne Exhibition featuring the gold obelisk, sent to the 1862 London Exhibition, from The illustrated Melbourne post February 1862, p. 13

special exhibition catalogue was an opportunity “to set the people of Europe right upon many points relative to this country, respecting which ignorance and confusion prevail”. He also believed that “Victoria will appear to advantage and the progress made by her during the last decade may rival that of any of the numerous possessions of Her Majesty”. This was no idle boast: in the London venue Victoria's exhibits occupied more than double the floor space of those of New South Wales. On the same occasion, the Governor Sir
Henry Barkly sounded a more cautious note by pointing out that a state as new as Victoria was susceptible to sudden crises of confidence, and that such an exhibition “must tend to convince us of the reality of the prosperity which this Colony enjoys”.3

Paris 1867

This was in every way a more modest effort than 1862, but deserves mention for two important exhibits concerning the Aborigines of Victoria. The first was a set of sixteen plaster life casts (head and shoulders) from Aboriginal men and women. It was Redmond Barry's brainchild, and whatever misgivings we might have about such a project today, it undoubtedly came out of the sympathetic curiosity that he felt towards Aboriginal culture in general. He also compiled a vocabulary of Aboriginal languages which was published in English and French in connection with the exhibition.
Barry had first proposed the casts in 1861: copies of his correspondence concerning them can be found in the letterbook of the Exhibition Trustees, housed in the Library's Australian Manuscripts Collection, so it seems reasonable to assume that he originally intended them for the London exhibition of 1862. For whatever reason, the project languished, and the casts were not prepared until 1866. Barry's letters to the Protector of Aborigines, asking for suitable individuals to be cast, make plain his concern that no-one should undergo the process unless they understood it and felt completely comfortable about doing so.4 The casts were made by the sculptor Charles Summers, best known for his Burke and Wills monument.
Barry also commissioned a series of 106 photographic portraits of Aboriginal men, women and children from the Coranderrk station. These photographs, by the German-born Carl Walters, are now in the Library's Picture Collection. They show their subjects in close three-quarter view, dressed in European clothes. Compared to the monumental simplicity of the plaster busts, these images seem to place less emphasis on racial type and more on the individuality of each sitter.
These projects appear to have been the most substantial representations of Victorian Aboriginal life made at the exhibitions, international and domestic, during this period. Weapons, tools and other handicrafts were occasionally shown but, insofar as one can judge from their bare listings in the catalogues, they do not seem to have been either large or systematic.

Philadelphia 1876

Victoria's exhibits here conform to the pattern that had already become familiar: large collections of minerals, woods, essential oils distilled from native vegetation, wool and plaster casts of fruit and vegetables. One significant change was that by now plaster casts of nuggets had to take the place of raw gold.
The noteworthy feature of the Philadelphia Exhibition was the elaborate system of classification devised by the American commissioners, intended to illustrate every phase of industrial society, from raw materials to the most complex social organization. On the one hand, such a scientific classification seems to have discouraged the more “showmanlike” exhibits: notable by its absence was the famous “gold” obelisk, first constructed for the 1862 London Exhibition. The Victorian Commissioners had sent it to every subsequent exhibition (and continued to show it after 1876), updating it by adding to it at the base.
On the other hand, the new classification called forth a wealth of information about the otherwise unexhibitable aspects of progress. The catalogue of Victorian exhibits contains long and informative essays about Victorian history, government, the Public Library and National Gallery, music societies, welfare institutions, hospitals, schools and the penal establishment. It comes as a surprise to read in an exhibition catalogue, normally the epitome of progress and optimism, a series of sometimes gruesome statistics on diseases, deserted children, inebriates, etc.

The 1880s

Victoria's exhibitions abroad during this decade are inevitably overshadowed by the successful staging of two international exhibitions
in Melbourne, in 1880 and 1888 (discussed elsewhere in this issue). Surveying the catalogues of this period, it becomes clear that while hosting an exhibition could still generate considerable excitement, contributing to exhibitions held elsewhere had become a more routine commercial enterprise. When the proposed Melbourne 1880 Exhibition was being debated in the Victorian Parliament, James Goodall Francis, opposing it, asserted that “indeed, on the other side of the world, the Exhibition game was thought to be somewhat played out and overdone”.5
One other point that should be mentioned is the growing importance of Victorian wine as an exhibition item during the 1880s. The collections of wines sent for display increase steadily in size and variety and at Paris in 1889 they appear to form the major component of the Victorian pavilion. The Victorian Paul de Castella won one of only seven Grand Prizes awarded at this exhibition.6 Victorian wine was also sent in retail quantities and sold over the counter.

The 1890s

Victoria had barely reached the climax of its exhibition career when its economy collapsed, largely due to overinvestment in speculative and wildly inflated real estate, housing and transport. It may even be possible that exhibitions contributed to Victoria's balance of payments problem, another cause of the crash: the Melbourne Exhibition of 1880 had led to a significantly increased number of local agents for European manufacturers and importers.7
Exhibitions were an inevitable casualty. Victoria's presence at the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle was, apart from the wines already mentioned, comparatively limited, and it did not participate in any international exhibitions during the decade of the 1890s. No longer could it proclaim, as it had done in the official pamphlet published in English, French, Dutch and German for the 1883 Amsterdam exhibition: “To all persons whom Europe denies a career, and compels them to labour from infancy to old age for a pittance insufficient to procure the necessaries, to say nothing of the comforts, of life … Victoria says Come — there is room for all of you — Come, and bring your wives and little ones, for I have room for all of you”.8
In 1891, James Stewart Butters spoke in Parliament to his motion that Victoria should send exhibits to the forthcoming World's Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1893.9 “It had always been the desire of Victoria to be represented at every great exhibition, no matter in what country it was held” … New South Wales had applied for seven acres “and it would never do for Victoria to take a back seat” … Despite the protectionist policies of the Americans, there was every opportunity to establish Victorian wool in their markets … the projected attendance was 100 million, etc. etc. Like every exhibitioneer, Butters was taking the long view, but the moment for that had passed. His motion lapsed.
Gerard Hayes
Librarian in the Australian Manuscripts Collection
of the La Trobe Library


Letter from A. Clarke to the Colonial Secretary, 12 July 1854, in Exhibition Commissioners' letterbook, Australian Manuscripts Collection H17247.


The times 29 May 1855.


Catalogue of the Victorian Exhibition 1861. Melbourne, John Ferres. Government Printer. 1861, pp. 26–27, 33.


Exhibition Commissioners' letterbook, op.cit. pp. 93, 162. On the casts, see also: Christine Downer, “Charles Summers and the Australian Aborigines”, Art and Australia vol. 25 no. 2, p. 212, and A. Galbally, Redmond Barry: an Anglo-Irish Australian. Carlton, Vic., Melbourne University Press, 1995.


Victorian Legislative Assembly, Hansard vol. 28, p. 942 (10 September, 1878).


David Dunstan, Better than Pommard! A history of wine in Victoria. Kew, Vic., Australian Scholarly Publishing and the Museum of Victoria, 1994, p. 151.


Graeme Davison, The rise and fall of marvellous Melbourne. Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 1978, p. 21.


George Collins Levey, Essay on the Colony of Victoria. Melbourne, John Ferres, Government Printer [1883], p. 16.


Victorian Legislative Assembly, Hansard vol. 68, pp. 3410–3411 (24 December 1891).