The Royal Exhibition Building was built in 18 months for the purpose of hosting Melbourne’s 1880 International Exhibition, and it then held a subsequent Centennial Exhibition in 1888. Both the building and the surrounding gardens were designed by architect Joseph Reed, and they were inscribed into the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2004. The building is constructed in the shape of a cross with a majestic central dome, and large archway entrances with fanlight windows on each side. When it was built it was the largest building in Australia and the tallest building in Melbourne.
International Exhibitions or World’s Fair
The 19th century saw the rise in popularity of a type of event known as an International Exhibition (also known as a World’s Fair in the USA). International Exhibitions were hosted by countries all over the world, following a schedule regulated by Paris based organisation known as Bureau International des Expositions (BIE). The purpose of these exhibitions was to showcase the industrial and cultural achievements of the host city, while also inviting other countries from all over the world to come and exhibit.
Held at a specific site, usually for a period of around six months, the exhibitions were a combination of a trade show in pavilions with the added excitement of entertainment in amusement zones. Visitors to the exhibition were able to experience new scientific inventions, ideas, cultures, goods and foods outside the realm of their everyday experiences. World travel was not readily accessible to the general population, and the exhibitions effectively brought the world to the people in their own country. It was such a popular concept that the exhibitions drew millions of visitors.
The Victorian gold rush era made Melbourne a prosperous city. When the opportunity to host an International Exhibition arrived, Melbourne spared no expense on the site preparation. The great hall was built to be a permanent building that would become part of Melbourne’s future as the city grew, long after the exhibition was over.
Elegant architectural design on a grand scale, the exhibition buildings dome was modelled after the famous cathedral in Florence. In true gold rush fashion, the crown of the dome is covered in gold. ( We have so much gold, we cover buildings with it… )
Some of the world’s most treasured buildings and monuments were originally constructed because of an exhibition, including London’s Crystal Palace, and the iconic Eiffel Tower in Paris.
For the 1888 Centennial International Exhibition, electric lighting was installed to both the interior and exterior of the building, powered by generators in the basement. The generators were one of the exhibits that people could go and see. This allowed the exhibition to continue until 10pm in the evenings – which was VERY LATE, and a novel experience! This was the first exhibition in the world to be open at night.
Inside the building, the ground floor is wide and timbered.
A mezzanine level hugs the walls, allowing visitors to walk the perimeter of the building and look down over the main ground floor as they proceed. All constructed from timber and beautifully painted.
Through the years the building has had many uses and has been repainted many times over. In 1994 the building underwent a major conservation and restoration project and the interior was returned to the federation colour scheme including murals.
To this day, the building continues to be used for its original purpose – as an exhibition hall.
Strolling around in the gardens is a popular pastime, and they are a beautiful place for picnics. The gardens are nestled beneath established trees and a network of pathways leads you through the different sections.
From the wide shady avenue leading up to the main entrance of the Exhibition Building, to fountains surrounded by colourful beds of flowers and inviting lawns, the gardens are designed to be enjoyed.
With plenty of seating along the way providing opportunities to sit and talk, or rest, or just admire the view.
Take a Tour
I took the opportunity to take a tour of the Royal Exhibition Building when I was in Melbourne recently. I found the tour to be very informative and hearing the guide telling the stories of the history of the building was interesting. Around the gallery on the mezzanine floor, there are several panels with historic photos and information about the building. Such as this one below:
During my visit, restorative work was being conducted on the front façade of the building, so I had to try and take my photos around the scaffolding and plastic work barriers. But at least it wasn’t closed, so that was good! The tours cost around $14 after booking fees are applied, and they don’t run if the building is being used for an exhibition. Tickets are available for purchase from the Melbourne Museum, 11 Nicholson St, Carlton VIC 3053.
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