10 Interesting Facts about the Royal Exhibition Building
- The Royal Exhibition Building was built for the 1880 International Exhibition and is one of the few remaining structures from the 19th-century world fairs
- The Exhibition Building is the first Heritage-listed building in Australia, being added to the World Heritage List on 1 July 2004
- At 152 metres long and covering an area of 7,000 square metres, the Exhibition Building today constitutes only one-tenth of the entire exhibition space created in the 1880
- Temporary annexes covering most of the northern gardens were built for the Melbourne Centennial International Exhibition
- The Royal Exhibition Building continues to support a spectrum of trade shows, fairs, exhibitions, cultural and community events
- The building also has special significance in Australia’s history as the place where the first Parliament of Australia was opened in 1901
- On 3 September 1901, the new Australian flag was first unveiled and flown here
- The Royal Exhibition Building was designed by Joseph Reed and built by David Mitchell for the Melbourne International Exhibition, 1880-81
- The Exhibition Building took a meagre 18 months to complete; its restoration took a whole 12 years
- The highlight of the Royal Exhibition Building is the dome of the building
When was the Royal Exhibition Building built?
The Royal Exhibition Building was built in 1879.
Royal Exhibition Building History
The Royal Exhibition Building is steeped in history with the building being used for several different purposes over the years. From hosting Australia’s first International Exhibition and holding the first Australian Parliament in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to hosting the Annual Flower and Garden Show and the Melbourne Bridal Show in the present day, the Royal Exhibition Building is bursting with stories to tell.
International Exhibition movement
The international exhibition movement began in the 19th century as a means to promote and share the developments and technologies of the industrial age. This movement was significant for its role in the global dissemination of goods, technologies, culture, values and ideas, heralding a new era of networks and the modern international economy.
Australia’s first International Exhibition
Melbourne hosted six modest exhibitions from 1854 to 1875. In 1878 the Victorian Government announced plans for a new Exhibition Building in Carlton Gardens for Victoria’s first International Exhibition in 1880.
Architect and builder of Australia’s first International Exhibition Building
A design competition was won by prominent Melbourne architects Reed and Barnes, and construction commenced in 1879. The southern gardens were re-designed to provide a garden setting for the building in the style of previous international exhibitions in Europe and America.
Royal Exhibition Building annexes
The Exhibition Building seen today was known as the ‘Great Hall’. It is 152 metres long and covers an area of 7,000 square metres. Massive as it is, during the 1880 Exhibition it constituted only one-tenth of the entire exhibition space, as temporary annexes were erected over a large area of the northern gardens. After the exhibition the temporary annexes were dismantled and the area re-landscaped.
The Melbourne Centennial International Exhibition was held in 1888. Temporary annexes covered even more of the northern gardens. These were again dismantled after the Exhibition, leaving only the Great Hall and long, elaborate Eastern and Western machinery annexes (since demolished). The Northern Gardens were re-landscaped once more in a layout similar to 1882.
Palace of Industry
The Royal Exhibition Building was erected as a ‘Palace of Industry’. It displayed the technologies and achievements of the mechanised age. Its huge temporary halls housed exhibits from more than 30 nations. Pianos, typewriters, lawnmowers, electric lights, carriages and decorative homewares were all on display. The 1880 exhibition was the greatest show the city had ever seen, and attracted over one million visitors; it changed public taste in Melbourne.
Role of the Royal Exhibition Building over the years
To this day the Royal Exhibition Building continues to support a spectrum of trade shows, fairs, exhibitions, cultural and community events. It also has special significance in Australia’s history as the place where the first Parliament of Australia was opened in 1901.
First Australian Parliament
The Exhibition Building was the setting for the opening of the first Federal parliament on 9 May 1901. Over 12,000 people attended the event in Australia’s largest building. On 3 September 1901, the new Australian flag was first unveiled and flown here. Federal Parliament took over Victoria’s Parliament House, so Victoria’s state parliament sat in the Western Annexe until 1927.
World Heritage Listing
The Royal Exhibition Building and the Carlton Gardens were added to the World Heritage List on 1 July 2004. The listing citation reads:
The Royal Exhibition Building and the surrounding Carlton Gardens, as the main extant survivors of a Palace of Industry and its setting, together reflect the global influence of the international exhibition movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The movement showcased technological innovation and change, which helped promote a rapid increase in industrialisation and international trade through the exchange of knowledge and ideas.
Royal Exhibition Building – Architect & Builder
The Exhibition Building was designed by Joseph Reed and built by David Mitchell for the Melbourne International Exhibition, 1880-81.
Joseph Reed, who designed the Exhibition Building, was possibly the most influential Victorian era architect in Melbourne. His other grand buildings include the Royal Society of Victoria building, Trades Hall, Ormond College, the State Library and the Melbourne Town Hall.
The builder David Mitchell (father of Dame Nellie Melba), was also a major figure and responsible for building the Customs House, now the Immigration Museum, Scotts Church and Saint Patrick’s Cathedral.
Royal Exhibition Building Architecture
Some consider the Royal Exhibition Building to be one of the most beautiful buildings in Melbourne; others compare it to an ugly Victorian wedding cake. Whichever way you look at it, the architecture is splendid but surprisingly not unique.
Due to its World Heritage listing, every aspect of the Exhibition Building has been kept as close to its original form as possible.
The architect, Joseph Reed didn’t have an original idea for the building. He went around Europe and copied bits of European architecture and incorporated it into the building. The dome of the building looks like a church because he designed the building to be a ‘Temple of Industry’. He copied the Crystal Palace in London as well as the architecture of the fan windows there. He designed the building to allow for a lot of natural light to enter through the windows as well as for people to move through the building with relative ease.
The paint scheme of the building has changed over the years. Today, the paint scheme used is the 1901 paint scheme. In 1901 the most important event in this building’s life took place – when Australia became a nation. After 1901 the Board of Trustees had the building painted about 25-27 times.
The gas chandeliers in the Royal Exhibition Building are original copies of the chandeliers used during the 1880 Exhibition. The company that made the originals made the reproductions that we currently see in the building.
The Exhibition Building floor is made of spotted gum; the original floor of the building was Baltic pine. Spotted gum was sourced locally from NSW and was the closest in looks to Baltic pine; hence it was used as a replacement.
The star attraction of the Royal Exhibition Building is the dome.
The exterior of the dome is gilded gold – from the time that Victoria was awash with money from the Gold Rush period. The height of the dome is 33 metres which also happens to be the same height as the nearby Melbourne Museum.
There are several paintings on the dome that have symbolic meaning.
As you walk up to the dome, on the left and right sides are the Ladies. Also known as mythical floating ladies or ‘Sylphs’, they are represented here as women. The ladies symbolise ‘fertility’. Also, around the turn of the 20th century most things were represented by women.
On the eastern side of the building is the lady of the dome representing day; on the western side is the lady of the dome representing night. This symbolism is used to represent the rising of the sun in the east and the setting of the sun in the west.
On the inner part of the dome are four sylphs representing the four seasons of Melbourne (which we can get in one day) – autumn, winter, spring and summer.
Further into the dome there are two more sylphs – representing justice and truth. The justice here doesn’t have a blindfold because the artists used a lot of symbolism from the Greeks.
Above the southern entrance, which is the rear of the building, are four tiers of government, also known as the lunettes of the building.
First is the arch representing ‘war’. In the centre is Britannia riding the chariot of the sun or Minerva. Surrounding here are six Amazonia warrior women representing the six colonies of Australia.
Opposite on the northern side is the arch representing ‘peace’. In the centre is the idealised version of Britannia. At her feet is a lion asleep. The lion here represents the British Empire who is sleeping and therefore peaceful. The lion is not going to hurt you when it is asleep, but if you wake it up you’ll have war. The painting is done in a heavenly or paradise setting. Six women representing the six colonies of Australia are playing music, doing art, writing literature with forays of wine and platters of fruit.
Next to it is the arch of ‘good governance’. When the founding fathers of Australia were adopting a new form of democracy they choose the one they most closely associated with – the British Westminster system of Parliament. They tweaked it a bit to suit Australia’s needs.
Across is the most important of the arches – the arch of ‘federation’. Again in the centre is Britannia holding the Union crest. It is only under her blessing that the six colonies that make up Australia come together to form one nation. From left to right are South Australia, Tasmania, Western Australia, New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland. Northern Territory is not there because the Northern Territory is not a State and at that time it was not a colony but part of South Australia. Also ACT is not seen here as it only came into existence in 1927.
Above the arches are figures from Classical mythology that tie in with the arches. Ares or Mars, the God of War tying in with the arch of War; Hermes or Mercury, the messenger of the Gods tying in with Federation, letting the world know that this new country has started; Aphrodite or Venus, the Goddess of Love tying in with the arch of Peace; Hercules representing strength tying in with the arch of good governance.
Above the figures from Classical mythology are four Latin inscriptions – Benigno Numene or ‘By the favour of heaven’; De Gratzia or ‘By the grace of God’; Ordre Supera or ‘Dare to be wise’ and Capre Diam or ‘Seize the day’.
The heads that can be seen along the lowest section of the dome below the paintings are left over from the 1880 Exhibition when countries from all over the world came to Melbourne to display their wares. The different heads were meant to represent the different people coming from all four corners of the earth.
Best time to visit the Royal Exhibition Building
The best time to visit the Royal Exhibition Building is during the Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show held in spring (March) every year. The flower show brings the building to life and highlights the Victorian architecture of the building.
At any other time, the Exhibition Building is best visited on a guided tour (see below) when there are no exhibitions or events taking place so you can see every section of the building and walk around without any noise or interruptions.
Guided Tours of the Royal Exhibition Building
One of the best ways to explore the Royal Exhibition Building is on a guided tour, especially if you would like to know more about its history and architecture as well some interesting stories about its past.
Guided tours of the Royal Exhibition Building are conducted daily at 2:30 pm and last for 45-60 minutes. Tickets for the tour can be purchased from the Melbourne Museum. The tour commences in the foyer of the Melbourne Museum.
Access to the Royal Exhibition Building is restricted on some days of the year, so please call 13 11 02 on the day to confirm if the tour is operating.
How to get to the Royal Exhibition Building?
The Royal Exhibition Building is located in Carlton, one of the inner north suburbs of Melbourne. It can be reached via train or tram.
By train: The Royal Exhibition Building is a short 10-minute walk from Parliament Station
By tram: Tram 86 or 96 to the corner of Nicholson and Gertrude Streets or the free City Circle Tram to Victoria Street
Royal Exhibition Building Parking
If you’re driving to the Royal Exhibition Building undercover parking is available at the Melbourne Museum.
Royal Exhibition Building Address & Contact Details
Address: 9 Nicholson Street, Carlton, Victoria, Australia
Telephone: 13 11 02
Royal Exhibition Building Map
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