Visiting Melbourne’s Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens

As I approached the magnificent building from the west, a banner above the entrance door announced the forthcoming Victorian Hot Rod Association’s 50th anniversary show. The banner looked glaringly incongruous. Yet it emphasised the fact that here was a building that, despite its 135-year age, was still being used for its original purpose. Indeed it is the only remaining such building in the world.

Carlton Gardens

Carlton Gardens

The Carlton Gardens, in which Melbourne’s Royal Exhibition Building stands, are themselves a wonderful example of Victorian era landscape design. They occupy an area in which the Aboriginal peoples of the Kulin nation would hold tribal meetings prior to the coming of Europeans to Australia.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • Carlton Gardens offer a tranquil setting in the midst of a bustling world city.
  • The Royal Exhibition Building is architecturally magnificent.
  • Both gardens and building are historically of great importance to both the city of Melbourne and the nation of Australia.

Melbourne itself was founded in 1835 in what was then New South Wales colony, and was declared a city twelve years later. When Victoria gained the status of an independent colony in 1851, Melbourne became its capital. Following a gold rush during the 1850s, the city grew rapidly to become one of the largest in the world, and indeed the second largest, after London, in the British Empire. Its wealth at that time is thought to have exceeded that of London.

Carlton Gardens

As the building was closed for the morning, I wandered through the south section of Carlton Gardens. Everything was formally laid out, with meticulously coiffeured lawns and flower beds separated and surrounded by snaking walkways. In front of the building’s south door stood the Hochgurtel fountain, constructed of symbols representing commerce, science, the arts and industry.

A significant area of the east end of the garden was occupied by a lake, complete with more fountains and tree-covered islands. The trees throughout the gardens are a mixture of European oaks, elms, poplars and cedars, and Australian araucarias and Moreton Bay figs. Several are protected from brush-tailed possums by metal bands around their trunks. Many species of bat, including flying foxes frequent the gardens, while among the birds to be seen here are mynas, gulls and kookaburras.

Royal Exhibition Building, West Door

Royal Exhibition Building, East Door

The bronze French fountain occupies a circular garden in front of the building’s east door. To the side of this is Colonial Square, across which are scattered carved granite blocks that graced the façade of the Colonial Mutual Life building, a once important symbol of Melbourne’s wealth, that was demolished in 1960. At the corner of the Exhibition Building is a sandstone pillar erected in 1881 by John Woods, a Member of Parliament, in protest at the use of stone from New South Wales, rather than the local stone, for the construction of Parliament House.

In the North Carlton Garden stands the Melbourne Museum, where at 2 pm, I joined my wife and son and a small assembly of visitors for a 40-minute guided tour of the Exhibition Building. With its cruciform shape and vast internal space, it resembled a cathedral. Indeed, an archway at one end of the nave once curved over a 4800-pipe organ, the bellows of which were powered by electricity generated by a gas fire. This had last been played in 1923, after which it fell into disrepair and was removed during the 1960s. But this cathedral was purely secular in function.

Main Hall, Royal Exhibition Building

Main Hall, Royal Exhibition Building

Following Melbourne’s huge acquisition of wealth, dignitaries agreed that the city should step onto the world stage by hosting an international exhibition celebrating the artistic, scientific, industrial and commercial achievements of the nations. Trustees were appointed with the task of overseeing the construction of the Centre in the Carlton Gardens, and travelling the world to find exhibitors willing to come.

Royal Exhibition Building – Fairs and Ceremonies

The Royal Exhibition Building, designed by Joseph Reed and built by David Mitchell, was completed in eighteen months, and on October 1st 1880, the Fair was opened, with 32000 exhibits representing 33 countries. 6000 people attended the opening ceremony, and over the next seven months, the number of visitors rose to 1.3 million. The population of Victoria state at that time stood at 250 thousand.

The present building was accompanied by eastern and western annexes that have since been demolished. The eastern annexe, which housed a museum, aquarium and offices, was largely destroyed, along with valuable historical documents, maps, photographs and contracts, in a fire in 1953.

A second exhibition was held in 1888 to celebrate the centenary of the establishment of New South Wales colony. This attracted exhibits from 40 nations and welcomed two million visitors between 1st August and 31st January. For the first time in the world, electric lighting in an exhibition allowed night-time visiting.

Main Hall and Balcony

Main Hall and Balcony

Toward the end of the 19th century, referenda were held throughout the separate Australian colonies, which led to their federation as the Commonwealth of Australia. The inauguration ceremony was held in the Royal Exhibition Building on 9th May 1901, presided over by the Duke (later King George V) and Duchess of Cornwall, and attended by 12000 guests. It was here that the newly designed Australian flag flew for the first time.

Continuing Importance of the Royal Exhibition Building

Throughout the 20th century, the building served many purposes in addition to that of staging exhibitions. It held motor shows, dramatic performances and charity dinners. During the global influenza epidemic that followed World War I, it was used as a hospital and mortuary. It has also been the venue for University examinations. It was threatened with demolition in 1949, but following a lengthy conservation analysis, restoration work was carried out, a task that took 12 years, and indeed is ongoing today.

Because of its importance in Australia’s history, and the fact that it is still used for the purposes for which it was built, The Royal Exhibition Building and surrounding Carlton Gardens were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2004. It was the first Australian building to be granted this status and is representative of the international exhibition movement that flourished from the 1850s for around sixty years with some fifty exhibitions being staged throughout the world.

At the time of our tour, the building was occupied only by a small number of workmen preparing for the coming Hot Rod show. The floor space was vast, its area supplemented by broad balconies. Figures from classical mythology were depicted on the walls, while the dome was adorned with Latin mottoes. Suspended from the ceiling were replicas of the original gasoliers, now adapted for electric lighting. A series of display boards documented the history of the building, illustrated with photographs and reproductions of paintings of the periods.

Gasolier

Gasolier

Following our fascinated visit, we returned across the square, ready to enjoy a late lunch. The afternoon was not yet over. We had another couple of hours in which to explore the scientific and artistic galleries of the Melbourne Museum.

Practicalities

  • Carlton Gardens are a short walk from Melbourne Central Railway Station or a 20-minute walk from Federation Square.
  • The City Circle Tram runs along Victoria Street that borders the south side of the Gardens.
  • The Melbourne Museum, in the North Carlton Garden has an excellent restaurant.