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The Great Exhibition

. . . or to be more precise, the great exhibitions.

Melbourne had started life as a small bedraggled settlement, but gold was to change all that. Fortunately, the gold came at pretty much the right time and the right place. By the time the gold was running out a number of remarkable people, most of them starting from scratch, had taken the opportunities of the time to set up thriving and worthwhile industries and commercial enterprises. By the 1870s Melbourne's wealth was starting to be generated by industries created mainly by self-made men and women of enterprise, rather than those whose power came from inherited wealth or class. Unfortunately at the same time a number of people were accumulating temporary unearned wealth courtesy of a land and property boom but by the 1890s that bubble burst and we had learned our lesson for ever – maybe.

Melbourne had held several exhibitions of its industries trades and arts at an exhibition building made substantially of glass standing diagonally opposite the Flagstaff Gardens. That building was later replaced by the Royal Mint.

Meanwhile, back in England, a queen who had named herself after this esteemed colony (or was it the other way around) had married a German gentleman who met the appropriate political and diplomatic requirements. The English did not warm quickly to Albert who was a cultured and scholarly man. He however had a firm belief in the civilising effects of industry and commerce, arguing that if nations became mutually co-dependent through trade then there would less and less incentive to go to war with each other. As a result he became a great promoter of the world fair concept. People would come together in a city somewhere in the world for up to a year at a time and the arts, culture, industry and trades of various nations put on show. They had such an impact that they had major influence on the futures of many artists, musicians, designers, industrialists, engineers, thinkers and ordinary citizens of the time.

Melbourne held a grand exhibition in 1880 and commissioned a temporary building to house it. Local architect Joseph Reed and local builder David Mitchell seemed to shape up well. They say Mitchell's daughter Helen could sing a bit too. Many said the venture was too risky and the exhibition was an expensive experiment that would never work. Fortunately those sort of people have now disappeared from Melbourne. The Exhibition Building was erected together with a number of ancillary buildings and the 1880 exhibition was a great success. So much so that after this proof of concept a second grander exhibition was held in 1888. Fortunately the temporary Exhibition Building had not been knocked down so it could be re-used.

These two exhibitions left an indelible impression on Melbourne. Reading the correspondence of the time reveals certain parallels with the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Australians had half prepared themselves for a cringeworthy opening ceremony but eventually relaxed and exuded a certain pride when it did not turn out that way. Similarly the exhibitions of the 1880s led to a certain fear that Melbourne would be revealed to the world as a city of backwater hicks with a lot of money but not much culture. When it turned out that our local home-grown industries and enterprises were being hailed as world class there was a silent sigh of relief. Matrons, regardless of whether their circumstances were well-heeled or modest, took a little extra care in their grooming before heading into the city and carried themselves with an air of dignity befitting residents of a well-regarded metropolis. International businessmen who had previously omitted their country of origin from their calling cards now proudly displayed the word ‘Melbourne’ together with a picture of the Exhibition Building.

It is difficult to go around Melbourne, or Victoria for that matter, without seeing reminders of the Great Exhibition. In Carlton you will see terraces that hastily had second or third storeys added to house the visitors. At the entry to the Treasury Gardens you will see the bust of Sir William John Clarke who was made an hereditary baronet for his services to her beloved Albert’s world fair ventures. In Docklands you will see the large railway goods shed erected there to handle goods for the exhibition. In a Warrnambool gallery you will see the Loch Ard Peacock which never quite made it to the exhibition. And so on.

However, the most permanent reminder is David Mitchell’s temporary building. All over Europe you will find impressive heritage buildings but most of them have been turned into museums or tourist venues. Melbourne is young enough for many of its most impressive heritage buildings to still operate as working buildings. Parliament House is still the home to Parliament. The Melbourne Club still operates as club rooms. The Old Treasury Building is still the office of the Governor. And David Mitchell’s temporary building has still continued to earn its keep for over a century despite a proposal for its demolition to Melbourne City Council which was defeated by one vote. The grand old dame has seen some less than salubrious times but continued to work and has served as a venue home shows, car shows, examinations, balls, gala occasions and of course – exhibitions. She knows that if she continues to work and earn her keep she will possibly escape being relegated to a home for the irrelevant. And like the matrons of 1888 she knows the most important thing is, no matter what, to retain your dignity.

We feel it is fair to say that impact on Melbourne of the Great Exhibition was bigger than the Beatles.

Seven Melbourne Events that were Bigger Than The Beatles - overview

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