State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 56 Spring 1995


“The Accompaniments of European Civilization”: Melbourne Exhibitions 1854–1888

The danger is lest the absorbing pursuit of gold should dull the finer energies of our adventurous Colonists … We must “gather together” for more enduring purposes, if we wish to make the country great or happy: and in no way shall we tempt amongst us that class of colonists which is most to be desired, so readily as by showing that, in coming to Victoria, no advantages need be foregone which are the accompaniments of European civilization … It is probable that no community ever contained so large a proportion of birds of passage as ours.
So George William Rusden, 35-year-old failed pastoralist recently appointed to the Board of National Education, on the opening of the Melbourne Exhibition Building in October 1854.1
The Exhibition Building was one of a series of public institutions established in response to the chaos of the gold rush. First came the University (established 1853, first buildings commenced 1854) and the Public Library (site granted 1853, building opened 1856, art collection established 1859). The National Museum followed in 1854 (originally housed above the Surveyor-General's office in La Trobe Street, moved to the University 1856, and to the present Russell Street site in 1906). The Exhibition Building was constructed in 1854, in a little over two months at a cost of £21,000, at the northern end of William Street, where the Royal Mint now stands. It had a total floorspace of 19,000 square feet.2 The 1854 Exhibition was open for 30 days between 17 October and 12 December, and had 40,000 visitors, a little over half the population of Melbourne at that time. The exhibition committee was headed by Redmond Barry, then in his early forties, recently appointed to the Supreme Court of Victoria and heavily involved in the establishment of the University and Public Library.
Between 1851 and 1854, the population of Victoria grew from 77,000 to over 200,000. By 1857, the colony's population had doubled again, with 140,000 living in tents. In December 1854 the tensions on the goldfields flared into armed rebellion at Ballarat. The Exhibition, and perhaps more importantly the building which housed it, were symbols of civilization in a society which threatened to discard civilization altogether.
Later exhibitions focused on industry and technology. In gold-rush Melbourne these were meagre in the extreme. The 40,000 who visited the Melbourne Exhibition in the spring of 1854 were more likely to have been impressed by the concert grand piano (Broadwood & Sons, London), “two ancient illustrated German bibles” or Sir Joshua Reynolds' portrait of Emma Hamilton than by “specimens of colonial made quince jelly” or “two pairs of colonial made boots”. The layout of the Exhibition gave pre-eminence to high culture: whilst the ground floor displayed Hardware, Furniture, and Machinery in Motion, around the upper floor — overlooking, and partially visible from, the ground — were Musical Instruments, Jewellery, Textiles, Fine Arts, Printing and Bookbinding, Natural History, and Philosophical (i.e. scientific) Instruments.3

The Victorian Exhibition, 1861

The next significant Melbourne exhibition was the Victorian Exhibition of 1861, also held in the William Street building, from 1 October to 29 November. This exhibition was a preliminary to the 1862 London Exhibition, as the 1854 exhibition had served as a preliminary to the Paris Exhibition of 1855.
The catalogue of the 1854 Exhibition was a modest 36–page pamphlet which did little more than list the items on display. Publications associated with the 1861 Exhibition were rather more ambitious, with lengthy prefatory essays (issued in English, French and German) on the population, climate and natural resources of the colony.4

‘Progress of the exhibition building’ from The [illustrated] Australian news for home readers 27 August 1866, p. 8

The 1861 Exhibition was, as its title implied, almost exclusively Victorian. The preface to the catalogue commented on the changes that had occurred since 1854: “the Colony has attained such a state of development as could hardly have been anticipated by those who witnessed the disorganization of society, and the paralysis of the ordinary avocations of industry, which followed the gold discoveries. Mining having subsided into a settled pursuit, and the energy and enterprise of our population flowing once more into their accustomed channels, manufactures have been established, mechanical skill finds abundant opportunities for its exercise, the intelligence, the invention, and the artistic faculties of our people obtain free scope.”5
Despite the acclamation of “artistic faculties”, the accompaniments of European civilization on display at this exhibition were more industrial and agricultural than artistic. High culture (“Artistic and Ornamental Products”) was lumped in with “Industrial Products, Miscellaneous” in Class VII. Exhibits in this class included billiard tables, oil paintings, “colonial-made stays and corsets”, a newspaper “printed in gold on white silk”, and a “sample of soft soap, made from fish oil and potash”.6
The William Street building was poorly constructed, and prone to leaking. Its glass roof, the feature which most clearly showed its relationship to London's Crystal Palace, was painted white during the summer of 1857–58. It underwent further repairs during the 1850s and 1860s. Photographs of the period show the building looking dilapidated beyond its years, in contrast to the grand impression created by artists such as Gill.7
The Exhibition Building was the main concert venue for the Melbourne Philharmonic Society from 1854 to 1866.8 It also served as an interim lecture theatre for the university (1855) and as the venue for Temperance League rallies in 1857. The last grand function to be held there was Governor Darling's Vice-Regal Ball of
1864.9 The Exhibition Building was demolished in the late 1860s, and the existing Mint building erected on the site during 1871–72.

Exhibitions at the Public Library site, 1866–1875

Melbourne's second exhibition building was erected for the Intercolonial Exhibition of 1866–67 at the back of the Public Library, where the domed reading room now stands. The buildings were to become “the property of the [Library] Trustees, and to be used by them … so soon as the Exhibition closed”.10 With a total floorspace of 56,240 feet, its capacity was more than double that of the William Street building. Addressing the assembled construction workers, Redmond Barry compared the building with the great halls and cathedrals of Europe, and expressed the hope that “the permanent portions of the structure will bear witness to your labour … for centuries to come”.11
The Intercolonial Exhibition included displays from all the Australian colonies, as well as New Caledonia, Mauritius and the Dutch East Indies.
The material accompaniments of civilization again dominated this exhibition. The emphasis was on mineral and agricultural products, with “Machinery” ranging from various kinds of ploughs to a “patent sheep-washing machine” and a “Geographical Clock, for showing the relative time and difference of time between any given places”.12 The “Fine arts” were no longer elevated as they had been in 1854 (jewellery was confined to the rotunda between the library and the main exhibition hall, and the 435 paintings to a gallery at the southern end of the building), but local artists, such as Eugene von Guerard and S. T. Gill, made a more substantial contribution. The National Gallery was by now well established within the Public Library and many of the paintings on display were contributed by the Trustees of the Public Library.
Two more exhibitions were held at the Public Library site. The Victorian Exhibition of 1872 was “confined to Victorian products intended to be shown at the International Exhibition held in London in 1873”.13 The Victorian Intercolonial Exhibition of 1875 was a preliminary to the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876.
The exhibitions at the Public Library site are characterised by the growing range of publications associated with them: catalogues, programmes, essays on all manner of subjects (published separately as pamphlets, and collected in book form with the Official record).
The exhibition building remained in use as part of the library and art gallery complex until 1908, when it was demolished to allow construction of the domed reading room (completed 1913).14

The exhibitions of the 1880s

By the 1870s, Melbourne was becoming a major city. In 1871 its population was 191,449; by 1891, it had reached 474,440, comparable with the great industrial cities of Europe. Transport and communications were altering the meaning of distance. The telegraph cable link between England and Australia was completed in 1872. By the end of the 1870s, railways reached most corners of the colony. The execution of Ned Kelly in November 1880, a few weeks after the opening of the International Exhibition, marked the end of bushranging as a significant threat to social order. Melbourne's rapid development from frontier town to industrial metropolis had nevertheless been accompanied by the growth of social problems typical of any major city. The banditry of the “larrikins” lay at one end of the social scale; at the other was a ruling class described by various writers as “plutocratic” and “utterly selfish”.15 For popular novelists such as Fergus Hume, Melbourne was a city of dubiously acquired fortunes, desperate squalor and casual violence.16
Unlike that of 1854, however, the 1880–81 Exhibition was the product not of a general
social crisis but a specific political one. Graham Berry's liberal government was under siege. The colonial establishment would never forgive Berry for “Black Wednesday” (8 January 1878) when he purged the public service of supporters of the squatter-controlled Legislative Council; nor could it tolerate his protectionist economic policies. It was largely to demonstrate the benefits of protection to local industry that Berry set out to mount what soon became the most ambitious exhibition yet seen in the Australasian colonies.
The Melbourne International Exhibition of 1880–81 included exhibits from all the Australian colonies, as well as the United States and all the major industrialised countries of western Europe. The total floorspace occupied by exhibitors was 907,408 feet. No expense was spared. Earlier exhibitions had included orchestral and choral performances, notably in opening and closing ceremonies. At the exhibitions of the 1880s. concerts were a daily attraction.
Writing twenty years later, after the boom of the 1880s and the bust of the 1890s, the conservative historian Henry Gyles Turner described the 1880 exhibition as a “humanising factor” which “materially helped to enlighten the too easily satisfied colonists as to their progress when compared with other countries … [and was] the means of revealing to observant foreigners the great natural resources of the country, the free spending power of the people of all classes, and the wide field which it offered for exploitation by the commercial travellers of every manufacturing country in Europe … From that day forward [1880] much of the narrow provincialism of the colonists vanished … Collins Street began to take on a cosmopolitan aspect.” (Turner gave the credit for all this, however, to Berry's opponent and successor. Sir Bryan O'Loghlen.)17
The building erected for Berry's exhibition still stands in the Carlton Gardens. Its history is widely known, at least in outline, having been discussed by numerous writers in a variety of contexts. (It is also the subject of a forthcoming book by David Dunstan.)18 Through the twentieth century it has continued as the venue for specialised trade fairs and jubilee celebrations of various kinds. The Victorian Parliament met there during the period (1901–1927) when the Commonwealth Parliament occupied the parliament building in Spring Street. The present Victorian government plans to refurbish it as the new home for the Museum of Victoria.

Melbourne's first exhibition building photographed during the 1861 Melbourne Exhibition (I.TAF 451)

The last major exhibition in Melbourne during the nineteenth century was the Centennial International Exhibition of 1888–89. To allow for night time opening, the gas lighting installed for the 1880 exhibition was replaced with electric lighting. Other technological wonders on display included telephones, ice-making machines, diving apparatus and torpedoes.
Few of the great nineteenth-century exhibitions were financially successful, and the Melbourne exhibitions of 1880 and 1888 were among the most spectacular failures. Despite massive attendances, the two exhibitions recouped only a fraction of their costs in admission fees. The 1880 exhibition had 1.3 million visitors (in a city of 250,000): total expenses were £318,500, receipts totalled £68,500. Expenses for the 1888 exhibition totalled £400,000 (the initial budget was £25,000): less than half of this was recouped from the over 2 million visitors.19 Part of the blame was laid at the feet of the exhibitors: the 1888 Official record recommended that for future exhibitions “a charge should be made for both floor and wall space” to ensure realistic applications, and appropriate allocations.20
But the exhibitions themselves were not designed to make a profit. They were elaborately choreographed cultural exercises, displays at once pedagogic and promotional of the work of individuals within a society and of society as a whole, dedicated to enhancing the power and reputation of their progenitors. As such, they can tell us much about about the minutiae of everyday life, about commerce and technology, and about the self-image, hopes and fears of the colonial elite.
Ian Morrison
Librarian in the Research Section
of the La Trobe Library


G.W. Rusden, Gathering together for the good of work and learning. Melbourne. George Robertson, 1857, pp. 22–24.


The accounts of exhibitions in this article are largely drawn from “Previous exhibitions at Melbourne”, Melbourne International Exhibition 1880–1881: official record. Melbourne, Mason, Firth & McCutcheon, 1882, pp. xxxvi-ii-xliii, and “Previous exhibitions”. Official record of the Centennial International Exhibition, Melbourne 1888–1889. Melbourne, Sands & MacDougall, 1890, pp. 124–127.


Official catalogue of the Melbourne Exhibition 1854. Melbourne, Sinnett, [1855].


Two distinct editions of the Catalogue of the Victorian Exhibition, 1861 exist, one produced by John Ferres (the Government Printer), the other by Gibbs, Shallard & Co.


Catalogue of the Victorian Exhibition, 1861. Melbourne, Gibbs, Shallard & Co., [n.d.J, p. iii.


Ibid., pp. 209–221.


Gill's lithograph is reproduced in M. Cannon. Melbourne after the gold rush. Arthur's Seat. Vic., Loch Haven, 1993. pp. 216–217.


W.A. Carne, A century of harmony: the official Centenary history of the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Society. Melbourne, Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Society, 1954, pp. 28–63. The Society's President from 1853 to 1869 was Redmond Barry.


Cannon, Melbourne after the gold rush. p. 337.


E. La T. Armstrong, The book of the Public Library, Museums and National Gallery of Victoria, 1856–1906. Melbourne. Trustees. 1906, p. 20.


R. Barry, Address to the workmen employed in building the Great Hall of the Melbourne Public Library and Museum. Melbourne. Wilson & Mackinnon, 1866, p. 39.


Intercolonial Exhibition of Australasia, Melbourne 1866–67: official record. Melbourne. Blundell, 1867, p. 53.


“Previous exhibitions”, Official record of the Centennial International Exhibition, Melbourne 1888–1889, p. 125.


E. La T. Armstrong & R.D. Boys, The book of the Public Library, Museums and National Gallery of Victoria, 1906–31. Melbourne. Trustees, 1932, p. 8.


See G. Serle, The rush to be rich: a history of the colony of Victoria 1883–1889. Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 1971, p. 87ff.


Epitomised in Hume's masterpiece Madame Midas (London, Hansom Cab, 1888) as much by the “young men in evening dress … exhilarated with wine” who molest Kitty Marchurst (p. 150). as by the elaborate evil of the novel's leading villains.


H.G. Turner. A history of the Colony of Victoria, vol.2: 1854–1900. London, Longmans, Green, 1904. p. 219–222.


David Dunstan, Victorian icon: a history of the Royal Exhibition Building. Melbourne, Exhibition Trustees, 1995; Recent articles include: D. Darbyshire, “Grand survivor”, Port of Melbourne quarterly 29, July-Sept 1980, pp. 8–16: G. Davison, “Exhibitions”, Australian cultural history 2, 1982, pp. 5–21 [reprinted as “Festivals of nationhood” in S.L. Goldberg & F.B. Smith (eds), Australian cultural history. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1988]; D. Dunstan, “Melbourne's commercial cathedral”. Trust news Victoria March 1991, pp. 10–15; P. Fox, “Exhibition City: Melbourne and the 1880 International Exhibition”, Transition: discourse on architecture 31, Summer 1990, pp. 62–71; J. Parris & A.G.L. Shaw, “The Melbourne International Exhibition 1880–1881”, Victorian historical journal 51(4), 1980, pp. 237–254. A detailed study of nineteenth-century exhibitions is: P.H. Hoffenberg, “To create a Commonwealth: Empire and Nation at English, Australian and Indian Exhibitions, 1851–1914”, Ph.D. diss., University of California Berkeley, 1993.


“ For an outline account of the Centennial International Exhibition see: G. Davison, J.W. McCarty, A. McLeary (eds), Australians 1888. Broadway, NSW, Fairfax, Syme & Weldon, 1987, pp. 21–27.


“Future exhibitions”, Official record of the Centennial International Exhibition, Melbourne 1888–1889. Melbourne, Sands & MacDougall, 1890, pp. 339–349.