The Royal Exhibition building which sits adjacent to the Melbourne Museum is the first building in Australia to be awarded the UNESCO World heritage status. It was built on 1880 to host the Melbourne International Exhibition of 1880. The building also hosted the Melbourne Centennial Exhibition of 1888 to celebrate a century of European settlement in Australia. The other significant event was the inauguration of the first Parliament of Australia in 1901.After the official opening, the federal parliament moved to the Victorian State Parliament house and the Victorian Parliament moved to the Exhibition building. For the next 26 years, the Victorian Parliament functioned from there. It was a venue for the 1956 Summer Olympics, hosting the basketball, weightlifting, wrestling, and the fencing part of the modern pentathlon competitions. Even today the building hosts various exhibitions and events.
The concept of international exhibitions was created to exhibit the achievements of modern industrial development to a mass audience. The first exhibition of manufactured goods took place in France in 1798. The Great Exhibition of 1851 in London was the first such international event. The international exhibition movement was spreading, inspiring cities around Europe and America. London, Vienna and Philadelphia organised their own grand exhibitions. Paris organised in 1855, 1867, 1878 and in 1889.
Exhibitions were a regular occurrence in Melbourne since the Goldrush days and Melbourne even had an Exhibition building constructed at the northern end of William Street in 1854. The Victorian Exhibition of 1861 was organised here. This building was demolished in the late 1860s and then onwards, the grounds of the Public Library and Museum served as a temporary venue for the exhibitions. There was a need for a permanent Exhibition building for Melbourne to claim its emerging position as a marvellous and industrialised city. In the mid 1870’s Victorian Chief Secretary Graham Berry took up the idea of an international exhibition in Melbourne. By mid-1877, Carlton Gardens were selected as the site for the Exhibition. In 1878 Commissioners were appointed to oversee the international Exhibition with William John Clark MLC as President and James Joseph Casey one among the five Vice Presidents.
The building Committee met to call for tenders for the erection of the building in Carlton Gardens. In May 1878, the firm Reed and Barnes was announced the winner of the architectural competition. The building was designed by Joseph Reed of Reed and Barnes architecture, who was also behind the designs of the Melbourne Town Hall and the State Library of Victoria. The foundation stone was laid by Victorian governor George Bowen on 19 February 1879. The design of the building was influenced by Byzantine, Romanesque, Lombardic and Italian Renaissance styles. The dome was modelled on the Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence and the main pavilions were influenced by the style of Rundbogenstil (the round arch style) made popular in northern Germany in the early 19th century. David Mitchell, father of Dame Melba won the tenders for the Exhibition hall and machinery annexe. Joseph Hochgurtel was awarded the fountain contract. The building finished on time and the opening ceremony was on 1st October 1880. The final event of the exhibition was a grant ball held on 1st June 1881 and the wind-up complimentary dinner was in August. The control of the Permanent buildings and 20 acres of the Carlton gardens were passed on to a trust of seven members after the exhibition.When it was built the dome was taller than any spire in Melbourne. Visitors could climb to the promenade and see the best possible views of the city and the suburbs
In 1884, tenders were called for the electrification of the building, but it took until the 1888 Centenary Exhibition for it to eventuate.
In 1885 an aquarium was opened at the Nicholson street wing of the building, with two large seal ponds, penguins, turtles and even crocodiles. The aquarium was destroyed by fire in 1953.
The current form of the Exhibition building is only a portion of the structure erected for the 1880 Exhibition. There were both permanent and temporary components to the Exhibition building in 1880. The permanent component consisted of the Great Hall, cruciform in plan, flanked by two smaller wings, known as the western and eastern annexes. The Western annexe was demolished in 1961 and the Eastern annexes was demolished in 1979.
The first Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia was opened at noon on 9 May 1901 by the Duke of Cornwall and York (later King George V) in the Exhibition Building.
In his address to the gathering the Duke said,
“It is His Majesty’s [King Edward VII] earnest prayer that this Union, so happily achieved, may under God’s blessing, prove an instrument for still further promoting the welfare and advancement of his subjects in Australia, and for the strengthening and consolidation of his Empire.”
The Duke declared the Parliament open. The inauguration of the Parliament was held there because, The Royal Exhibition building was the only building in Melbourne that could accommodate 13,000 guests. After the official opening, the federal parliament moved to the Victorian State Parliament house and the Victorian Parliament moved to the Exhibition building. The Victorian Parliament functioned from here until 1927.
In 1919 the Exhibition Building was used as hospital for patients infected with influenza virus, with the basement housing a morgue.
In 1922, first Australian war museum was opened at the building on Anzac Day.
In 1948, Members of Melbourne City Council proposed to demolish the building to be replaced with Government offices. The proposal was narrowly defeated.
During the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, the building hosts competitions in weightlifting, boxing, fencing, pentathlon and Basketball.
In 1980, during the visit of Princess Alexandra, the title of ‘Royal’ was bestowed on the building.
The Melbourne Museum was opened in year 2000 at the northern side of the Exhibition building. The building was listed in the Victorian Government building Register on 20th August 1982 and was transferred to Victorian Heritage register on 23rd May 1998.
In 2004, along with the surrounding Gardens, the building was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
In 2019, Museum Victoria commenced a project of conservation work on the southern façade of the building . The project includes the reopening of the Dome Promenade, which was the key attraction at the 1880 Melbourne International Exhibition.
Who owns and who manages Royal Exhibition Building
The Museum Victoria organises regular tours of the building and timings and schedule can be accessed from the Museum Victoria website. Museum Victoria also holds the copyright for the Royal Exhibition Building image collection.
The Victorian State Government owns the Royal Exhibition Building and the Carlton Gardens. But the control, administration and management of the building and the surrounding land are the responsibility of Museum Board of Victoria.
How to reach Royal Exhibition Building
Tram 86 or 96 to corner of Nicholson and Gertrude Streets, Free City Circle Tram to Victoria Parade
City loop train to Parliament Station. From there catch tram or bus to reach Royal Exhibition Building.
Bus routes 250, 251 and 402 to Rathdowne Street. Stop #5 of the Melbourne Visitor Shuttle
The Melbourne Museum undercover car park is open from 6.00am to midnight daily. Enter via Rathdowne Street or Nicholson Street. The car park charges hefty hourly rates.
Newspaper clippings of The Royal Exhibition Building
For those who are interested, below are a few Newspaper clippings from 1879 and 1880 about The Royal Exhibition Building, foundation stone laying ceremony and inauguration ceremony.
Below is a newspaper report appeared on the Cornwall Chronicle on 25th February 1879 about laying the foundation stone of the Exhibition building in Melbourne? This is only a part of that report.
The Cornwall Chronicle (Launceston, Tas. : 1835 – 1880) Tuesday 25 February 1879
LAYING THE FOUNDATION STONE OF THE EHX1B1TION BUILDING, MELBOURNE.
The foundation stone of the International Exhibition Building, which is about to tic erected in Carlton Gardens was laid by His Excellency Sir George Bowen on Wednesday evening (says the Ballarat Courier). It was intended that the affair should be as imposing as the importance of the ceremony be served, and the commissioners’ arrangements were elaborate. In the first place a large stand, capable of holding several hundred ladies, and reserved exclusively for the fairer portion of humanity had been built on the western side of the stone. Between this and the spot where the stone was to be deposited, was a platform for the vice-regal party; whilst on the south side were other platforms for the accommodation of the members of the executive committee and the guests generally.
At a minute or two past four a park of artillery in the rear commenced to operate, and, as it did so, His Excellency tho Governor, accompanied by Lady and the Misses Bowen, Bishop and Mrs Thornton, and Major Pitt, arrived, and entered tho box reserved for them.
Saturday 9 October 1880
THE MELBOURNE EXHIBITION.
The opening of the Melbourne International Exhibition was a brilliant success. Tho weather was beautiful, and the demonstration a grand one. The city wore a holiday appearance, and from early morning the streets were thronged with people. The great feature of the day was the procession, in which the representatives of various trades and public corporations, together with the Volunteer, naval, and military forces, the friendly societies, and fire brigades took part.
The pageant was a splendid one, and it may be regarded as the greatest spectacle that Melbourne ever witnessed. The Vice-Regal party consisted of the Marquis and Marchioness of Normanby, Lord and Lady Loftus, Sir William and Lady Robinson, Sir William and Lady Jervois and suites. The streets through which the procession passed were densely packed with people, and there was an immense crowd near the Exhibition building. The Exhibition is far from complete; indeed many of the courts are lamentably behind time ; nevertheless every exertion had been made to put the best side foremost and to conceal the defects, so that the general appearance of the building was highly creditable, The building itself was not decorated at all with the exception of the Now South Wales Art Court, which with its blue and white hangings, and its magnificent coat of arms, looked pleasantly conspicuous amid the general plainness.
When the Vice-Regal party entered the building, there were about 7000 persons present, including representatives of the different colonies, the Consuls, the principal residents of Victoria, and the exhibitors of all nations. The president, (Mr, W. J. Clarke); Mr. J. J. Casey, Mr. G. C. Levey, and other members of the Commission accompanied the Governors to the dais, and cheers were then given for the Queen, for the Prince of Wales and Royal family, and for the Marquis of Normanby. The inaugural cantata was then per- formed. M. Leon Caron, composer of the prize cantata, was conductor of the music. He had a well drilled chorus of nine hundred voices, and an orchestra of one hundred performers, and Mr. L. L. Lewis was organist. The soloists were Madame Simonsen, Mrs. Cutter, Mr. Armes Beaumont, and Mr. Verdi. The cantata was well given and the various numbers loudly applauded. At the close of the cantata, the president, vice-president, and secretary as- cended the dais, and the Secretary read an ad- dress to his Excellency the Governor of Victoria. His Excellency replied briefly, and then in the name of the Queen declared the Exhibition open.
The attendance at the Exhibition during the day numbered 15,108, of whom 8511 paid for admission. The number of persons in the streets during the procession is estimated at 150,000, the greatest crowd being in the vicinity of the Exhibition building. In the evening all the British ships in the harbour manned yards, and burned blue lights. The Finisterre burnt lanterns, and the German and Italian ships coloured lights. All sent up rockets; and the Cerberus and Nelson also took part in the illumination. The effect was very picturesque, and the spectacle was witnessed by about 40,000 persons from the shores of the Bay and the piers.
Address: 9 Nicholson Street, Carlton VIC 3053
Phone: 9270 5006
1880 ‘THE MELBOURNE EXHIBITION.’, Freeman’s Journal (Sydney, NSW : 1850 – 1932), 9 October, p. 9, viewed 20 May, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article133488689
1879 ‘LAYING THE FOUNDATION STONE OF THE EXHIBITION BUILDING, MELBOURNE.’, The Cornwall Chronicle (Launceston, Tas. : 1835 – 1880), 25 February, p. 3, viewed 20 May, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article66502105
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