The Great Exhibition at London’s Crystal Palace in 1851 stimulated half a century of ‘exhibition fever’. Events like the Intercolonial Exhibition of Australasia, held in Melbourne in 1866-7, gave the individual colonies the chance to show off their produce and their manufacturing expertise. They continued to exhibit at, and host, international ‘World’s Fairs’ throughout the second half of the 19th century.
The Intercolonial Exhibition was not the first great exhibition to be held in Melbourne. The first was in 1854 and took place in a building at the corner of William Street and Little Lonsdale Steet. This building was used again for an exhibition in 1861.
The grander scale of the 1866 Exhibition, however, demanded larger premises. New exhibition buildings were constructed behind the public library in Swanston Street. The Argus reported at length on the opening of the event, saying that the previous exhibitions:
…though notable in Melbourne annals, sink into insignificance when compared with the magnificent undertaking which was yesterday inaugurated. Both in conception and execution our third Exhibition stands out as a grand and peculiar one. For the first time, the various colonies of Australasia meet in friendly competition at an independent gathering.
New South Wales lagged a little, perhaps viewing the doings of other colonies as somewhat beneath its notice. However, in 1870 Sydney hosted its own intercolonial exhibition in Prince Alfred Park. The event marked the centenary of Captain Cook’s landing and showcased agricultural produce, manufactures and fine arts. It was attended by over 185,000 people.
The first international exhibition held in Australia was the Sydney International Exhibition in 1879. Two major exhibitions followed in Melbourne in 1880 and 1888, now housed in the grand Royal Exhibition Buildings that we see today. In America, the events were termed ‘World’s Fairs’, of which the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 was the largest and most extravagant.
However, by then, the appetite for exhibiting was abating. The boom times of the gold rush years gave way to depression and colonial governments were financially strapped. In rejecting an invitation to participate in yet another exhibition, this time in Antwerp, the Premier of New South Wales, George Dibbs, perhaps spoke for his peers in the other colonies.
I have just minuted a paper sent to me by Sir Robert Duff asking me to join in an exhibition in Antwerp in 1894 to say that the colony will not join,” he wrote. “I am full of affairs of this sort; our work is to be done at home. Besides, nine times out of ten the result is too costly … once in a quarter of a century should be sufficient and then only to first rate capitals of Europe.