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Royal Exhibition Building (Australia) - page 2 / 11





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J. G. Crace’s scheme for the 1862 London great exhibition. This scheme, overpainted in the 20th century, is now being restored.

The west transept was fitted with an organ - larger than St Paul’s London. This no longer exists, having been dismantled in 1965.

  • Carlton Gardens

The Carlton Gardens provide the setting for the Exhibition Building on all four sides. The main gardens are to the north and south. The south gardens during both great exhibitions were laid out as pleasure grounds, designed by Joseph Reed, while the north garden space was used to house extensive temporary pavilions and was only landscaped after the close of the events.

The south gardens are in ‘gardenesque style’ (planting reflecting scientific botanical interest) with a formal symmetrical layout around an axial path leading to the south front entrance. The planting consisted of avenues of plane and Turkey oak trees, exotic and native specimen trees, and parterre flowerbeds used for elaborate summer bedding displays. There were two lakes with islands and shrubberies and a number of fountains. The whole was linked by geometrical and linear paths and surrounded by a cast-iron perimeter fence above a blue-stone plinth. A notable feature is the Hochgurtel Fountain installed at the focus of the southern pathway system, and the largest and most elaborate fountain in Australia.

The garden reflects a major input from the 19th century horticulturalist William Sangster, particularly in the selection of plants and trees.

The garden was added to for the 1888 great exhibition but retains most of the main elements of the 1880s scheme and a high number of trees survive from that date, although some of the detail has been lost such as parterres, railings, fountains and seats.

The north garden was originally the site of the temporary exhibition halls. After their demolition at the close of the first great exhibition, the area was landscaped as a public park. The design is attributed to Clement Hodgkinson and his layout was subsequently re-established after the 1888 fair. As in the south garden, there were cast-iron perimeter railings, although only a small part survives.

The north garden now houses the new Melbourne Museum constructed on the site in 2000. This building now dominates the north garden. The conservation plan notes that the construction of this building has not been without impact on the gardens. Some pathways have been removed and had their alignment changed and the diagonal avenues of Chestnut-leaved oak and Dutch Elm close to the face of the building may potentially be affected by the construction works. What remains of the park to at the north end is crossed by avenues of mature trees.

Overall most survives in the south garden, less in the north garden and least in the east and west. The more ephemeral garden ornamentation features are substantially lost, although documentation survives.

The gardens are of considerable botanical significance for their collections of trees, many of which are rare or of outstanding form.


Association with the International Exhibition movement

The relationship of the building to the overall great international exhibition movement, or phenomena, is brought out in the next History section. In summary the building, its decoration and its surrounding gardens, together are seen to reflect what became the standard ‘form’ of layout and presentation of these major exhibitions and are now seen as the sole major remaining survivor of this genre.


The history of the buildings and gardens is closely linked to the history and development of the international exhibition movement – a phenomena that spread across all continents. Although the first great exhibition took place in 1851, in the Crystal Palace in London, the idea of celebrating manufactured goods had been in being for almost a century, with national exhibitions in England then France and elsewhere in Europe.

The difference between these small celebrations and promotions and the great exhibitions that followed was of scale and classification. The great exhibition movement, as it came to be known, espoused the 19th century passion for discovery and creation, but above all for classification. Classification – as exemplified in museums and botanical collections – demonstrated man’s control over his surroundings. Great exhibitions were a way of both celebrating the industry that emerged from the Industrial Revolution, and showing man’s domination over it in an international context.

Over 50 exhibitions were held between 1851 and 1915, each different yet sharing common theme and aims – to chart material and moral progress within a world context, through displaying the industry of all nations. Venues included Paris, New York, Vienna, Calcutta, Kingston, Jamaica and Santiago, Chile. Most had display ‘palaces’ specially constructed, often from manufactured iron components stretching technology to the limit.

By the 1870s a form for the overall layout had come to be established which consisted of clusters of history-domes, national pavilions and viewing platforms surrounding a ‘Palace of Industry’ all set within landscape grounds. And a network of contacts has been set up with ‘commissioners’ observing and suggesting improvements for the next event.

By around 1900 the slowing of national economies, combined with peoples’ realisation that manufacturing did not always improve the quality of life, led, outside the United States, to exhibitions begun to lose their appeal.

The Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne is thus an example from the mid-point of the movement. It did not appear out of nowhere: a first small exhibition building had been built in 1854, and others followed larger in scale, usually precursors to international exhibitions elsewhere. The two international exhibitions of 1880 and 1888 took place at a time when Melbourne was booming.

Unlike many other exhibition buildings, Melbourne’s has survived still on its original plot and surrounded by gardens. However there have been significant changes to the extended complex of buildings and gardens. The east

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