Located in Melbourne’s stunning Carlton Gardens, Melbourne’s magnificent Royal Exhibition Building was finished just in time for the 1880 Melbourne International Exhibition. It was a smashing success.
Lasting eight months, the exhibition attracted over a million people to the eight hectares of exhibition space. More than 30 countries displayed their industrial, cultural, and technological achievements to all comers, bringing knowledge from all over the world to Melbourne.
The Royal Exhibition Building was from then on logged into history as a major event venue, even hosting the opening of Australia’s first parliament in 1901. In 2004, it became Australia’s first building to win status as a UNESCO World Heritage site. It still hosts exhibitions and events in connection with the Melbourne Museum.
History of the Royal Exhibition Building
The Royal Exhibition Building shares some stylistic similarities with the State Library of Victoria and the Melbourne Town Hall, as all three buildings were designed by architect Joseph Reed.
In designing the Royal Exhibition Building, Reed modeled the dome on that of the Florence Cathedral, and the building’s main pavilions on buildings in Normandy, Paris, and Caen as well as the Rundbogenstil architectural style in Germany. As designed, its Great Hall covered more than 12,000 square metres and its temporary annexes many more. The building was finished within a year.
Right off the bat, the Great Exhibition Building was the site of not just one but three major historic events. Following 1880’s historic Melbourne International Exhibition was the Melbourne Centennial Exhibition of 1888.
When Australia won its status as the Commonwealth of Australia on the first of January 1901, the building was the site of the opening of the very first Parliament of Australia in May of that year. The parliament moved to Victorian State Parliament House soon afterwards, while the Victorian Parliament ended up using the Exhibition Building for 26 years.
When the Australian National Flag was designed and chosen, one of the first new flags was flown over the Royal Exhibition Building. It measured a full 5.5 by 11 metres in size.
The Royal Exhibition Building in the 20th Century
Unfortunately, the Exhibition Building was not well maintained in the early part of the century. By 1948, its existence came to a vote before the Melbourne City Council — should it be knocked down, and replaced by office blocks? The building survived… but only by a narrow margin.
A fire in 1953 burnt down the wing which had once been home to Melbourne’s aquarium. Regular weekly dances, car shows, boat shows, and other commercial expositions occupied the building during the 1940s and 1950s.
For the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, the Royal Exhibition Building was the venue for a number of events. Basketball, wrestling, weightlifting, and the fencing component to the modern pentathlon all took place there.
Students of all stripes also got to know the Exhibition Building. Among other uses, the Victorian Certificate of Education and State High School Matriculation exams took place there until the 1970s.
The Exhibition Building narrowly survived demolition again in 1979. After the grand ballroom was demolished, it was only a public outcry that saved the main building.
Just four years after the hundredth anniversary of the Melbourne International Exposition, Princess Alexandra bestowed upon the Exhibition Building the royal title, giving it the name Royal Exhibition Building. This was an important moment in the building’s history. Thanks to the new title and a conservation assessment done by Alan Willingham, the building saw a thorough restoration over the next twenty years.
A little while later, the Melbourne Museum was built next door. This was a controversial decision, and the controversy had far reaching effects. In order to protect the Royal Exhibition Building, the opponents of the museum’s construction nominated the Exhibition Building as a World Heritage Site in 1999.
By 2004, both the Royal Exhibition Building and the surrounding Carlton Gardens were granted the status of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, making the Exhibition Building the first building in Australia to get a spot on the list. As for the museum, it’s embarked on major projects to help restore and preserve the Exhibition Building and its grounds.
Nowadays, the Royal Exhibition Building still sees use for commercial exhibitions and trade shows, like the Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show. Students use it too, with at least six different high schools and universities holding their exams in it.
Seeing these buildings for yourself is now a realistic possibility. The internet allows one to plan a trip to the area with little to no difficulty in a short time. Planning your trip to Melbourne can take mere moments, whether you’re from a nearby country or another continent. This is great if you want to take a group on a historical tour of these historical buildings, or if you just want to take a vacation and take in an exciting new culture. There is no excuse not to at least investigate this endeavor, as there are countless options for a wide variety of price ranges.
Click here to learn more