The 20th Century

The Royal Exhibition Building illuminated, 1901
The Royal Exhibition Building illuminated, 1901.
Image: Robert S. Brain
Source: Museum Victoria

The building has hosted a great variety of public events: art shows, concerts, magic lantern shows, bicycle races, tugs of war, Olympic wrestling, baby shows, dog and poultry shows. An aquarium and museum occupied the Eastern Annexe for over 60 years.

In 1919 the Great Hall was commandeered as a hospital for patients suffering in the Spanish Influenza pandemic. Charity dances, state receptions, musical pageants, evangelist missions, and balls have all been held there. An annexe housed the first exhibitions of the Australian War Memorial, and, during the Second World War, trainee technicians from the Royal Australian Air Force lived there and tried to sleep in the echoing hall. After the war, a migrant reception centre was established in the grounds, and many new migrants spent their first evenings in Australia in the shadow of the building.

Many Melburnians remember visiting the Exhibition Building for Home Shows (first held in 1936) and Motor Shows (first held in 1912). Here, people saw the latest trends in home and garden design, and drooled over exciting imported cars. School and university examinations are still held here, as are rock concerts, garden shows and receptions.

From the 1940s, little consideration was given to the historical significance of the building, which became dilapidated and was often called ‘a white elephant’. However, a gradual appreciation of its heritage value meant that restoration work commenced in 1985. The Federation scheme of the interior was restored in the 1990s, and the building is now under the care of Museum Victoria. World Heritage listing ensures that the Building will continue to serve the people of Victoria into the future.