The World Heritage listed Royal Exhibition Building has been a leading character in the story of Melbourne for over 140 years.
In 1879 the somewhat unkempt Carlton Gardens were redeveloped with grand avenues, decorative fountains and parterre garden beds, creating an ornamental pleasure garden for the new Exhibition Building. Designed by Joseph Reed and built by David Mitchell for the 1880 Melbourne International Exhibition, the Exhibition Building epitomised the wealth, opulence, excitement, energy and spirit of Marvellous Melbourne. Together the 1880 and 1888 International Exhibitions attracted over three million visitors, brought cultures, technology and ideas from across the world to Melbourne, and were a place to see and be seen.
The Exhibition Building cemented its status Melbourne’s leading event venue and a tourist icon on 9 May 1901, hosting the opening of Australia’s Federal Parliament. Since that time baby shows, home shows, motor shows, bicycle races and pole sitting competitions are just some of the events that have found a home in the Exhibition Building.
More than just a setting for events the Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens have been at the heart of many of Melbourne’s stories. People delight in remembering childhood visits to Australia’s first aquarium or marvelling at the view over Melbourne from the dome. Recalling the building’s use as a makeshift hospital and morgue during the 1919 Spanish Influenza pandemic and the aquarium fire in 1953 prompt sombre reflections. Memories of the building filled with rows of desks and the sound of pens quietly scratching away during exams still strikes fear into the hearts of past and current Victorian students. While as a migrant reception centre in the 1950s its stories were ones of new beginnings and hope.
In 1980 the Exhibition Building became the lead character in this never ending series of stories when Princess Alexandra bestowed the Royal title on the building and program of restoration works commenced. The 1 July 2004 was the start of yet another a new chapter in the history of the Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens with the site inscribed onto the World Heritage List. It’s outstanding value the result of it being the only International Exhibition Place of Industry, with its garden setting, to survive largely intact and still be used as an exhibition and event venue.
Today, as in the 1880s, events take over both the building and gardens and draw international crowds. First held in 1995 the Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show is the largest in the Southern Hemisphere attracting over 100,000 visitors in 5 days. While the Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival continues the tradition of drawing the most fashion forward and stylish to the building and gardens to see and be seen, whether on the runway or promenading on the plaza.