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The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, held at London’s purpose-built Crystal Palace in 1851, marked the commencement of the great nineteenth-century international exhibition movement. A ‘motley collection of uncoordinated items represented New South Wales (NSW) and Van Diemans Land’, to be supplemented by a late exhibit displaying specimens of the first gold found in Australia (Young 2008, 12.3). Despite this modest beginning, Australians enthusiastically embraced subsequent international exhibitions, at home and abroad. Exhibitions have been a marketing tool for colonial and national advancement in global trade, migration and tourism from the 1850s to the present. The complex politics, personalities and astonishingly rich material culture of the exhibitions across two centuries examined in this collection reveal how public forms of display have continued to define us to ourselves, as citizens of Australia and of the world.

International exhibitions were a phenomenon of the Victorian age, where the forces of industrial capitalism and the imperial order created new forms of consumption and ideological and visual spectacle (Richards 1990), and produced new understandings of the relationships of power and social regulation (Bennett 1995). Exhibitions emerged alongside, and often were the impetus for the establishment of, the great cultural institutions of collection and classification of the same period: museums of technology, science and ethnography; art galleries; public libraries; botanical gardens; and zoos. These free and publicly funded institutions were sites for the advancement of scientific and social knowledge, where all classes, at a time predating mass literacy, could ‘learn through looking’. In the Australian colonies, the rapid creation of a civic culture and institutions advocating ‘people’s learning’ and self-improvement both addressed anxieties about colonial status, and confidently promoted social stability and patriotic unity (Fennessy 2007).

Other kindred organisations promoted the spread of knowledge in the colonies through practices of exhibition and participation. The most notable of these were agricultural societies, which sponsored annual agricultural shows. By the late nineteenth century, the large and influential agricultural shows held in Australian cities were a lively mix of competitive farming demonstrations, displays of commercial and domestic goods, educational and government promotion and sideshows and amusements. The 1879 International Exhibition in Sydney originated as a ‘grander version of a regular agricultural show’ (Freestone 2000, 16), illustrating how colonial agricultural societies, and their members, were often directly involved with the organisation of international exhibitions – and in some instances held local shows as complimentary events.

The scope of the exhibition movement was, of course, far more expansive than that of the local museum or agricultural show, because of the emphasis on international – and intercolonial – competition and cooperation. Until the mid twentieth century, when they were supplanted by the Olympic Games, international exhibitions were, as Graeme Davison (1983) has put it, ‘the most important of the symbolic battlegrounds on which nations demonstrated their prowess and tested the strength of their rivals’ (5). The physical size of exhibitions sites, the comprehensive range of displays, and the extraordinarily high number of visitors meant exhibitions were mass events in a class of their own. The international exhibitions held in 1879 in Sydney attracted 1.1 million, and in Melbourne in 1880 and 1888, respectively, 1.3 million and two million visitors. These were small numbers in comparison with visitors to exhibitions in Europe or the United States – around 48 million people attended the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900 – but represented a very favourable, and majority, proportion of the Australian population (Davison 1983, 17–19).

At the Crystal Palace, a precedent was established for the mass displays and classifications of raw and manufactured goods, machinery, and arts and crafts that were to characterise subsequent exhibitions. Over the course of the nineteenth century, these displays of wealth, technological innovation and cultural pursuits were to include increasingly elaborate ethnographic exhibits of the material culture, living conditions and histories of human societies, including those of colonised peoples. Through the classification and spatial relationships between objects, peoples and places, exhibitions reflected and regulated knowledge about such things as nature, ‘civilisation’ and science, the meanings of modernity, and gendered and racialised ideologies. They were powerful vehicles for the enactments of conspicuous consumption, shifts in leisure, and cultural production. Exhibitions also included spectacular opening and closing ceremonies, and an ongoing program of large-scale musical events and demonstrations of instruments. At the 1888 Centennial International Exhibition in Melbourne, for example, 244 concerts were mounted over six months, including 35 full symphonies and 91 overtures (Radic 2003; see also Bebbington 1997).

International exhibitions in Australia were also to have a profound impact on urban landscapes and planning. The classically styled Garden Palace, erected in the Domain for Sydney’s International Exhibition, briefly dominated the city’s skyline until it was destroyed by fire in 1882. Melbourne’s Royal Exhibition Building remains a monumental reminder of the sheer grandeur and scale of purpose-designed exhibition ‘palaces’ and their siting within colonial cities. Built for the 1880 Melbourne International Exhibition, it was designed by English-born Joseph Reed, who combined European architectural forms from Norman buttresses to Italianate ornament (Fox 1990). The soaring dome, reminiscent of the Duomo in Florence, was the largest architectural space in the southern hemisphere. The Exhibition Building dominated the city, enabling colonists ‘to be introduced to the sights of Europe without having to leave Victoria’s shores’ (Fox 2007, 124–125).

In 1880, the interior decoration of the Royal Exhibition Building was emblazoned with the motto: ‘Victoria Welcomes All Nations’. Murals over the internal arches incorporated imagery symbolising progress in technology and manufacturing, through to degrees of racial and cultural ‘civilisation’, represented at its zenith by white Britons (Cornell 1996, 72). For the Centennial Exhibition in 1888, the original murals were covered but the welcome motto retained (Maidment 1996, 74). In 1901, further internal redecoration was undertaken to mark the inaugural meeting of the federal parliament in May. The interior of the dome now represented a soaring sky. The stencilled imagery on its arches drew upon classical allegory depicting, at this very moment of national celebration, Australia’s place within the British Empire. And among the mottos offering guidance to the young nation was a quotation from Horace, Carpe Diem – Seize the Day (Willis 2004, 33; Dunstan 1996, 265).


Figure 1. Crowds gather around the British exhibits of homewares at the Melbourne Exhibition, 1980. Courtesy of Museum Victoria

The spirit of exuberance and confidence exemplified by Australia’s participation in international exhibitions from their inception in the nineteenth century is captured in those words: taking charge of the moment, striding forward on the world stage, and spruiking images of national identity that conjure a wealth of resources and progressive ideals. However the themes that run through this collection attest to the contradictions and tensions that underscore the practices and ideologies of exhibiting Australia, especially with reference to the intersections of colonial, national and imperial culture and the making of modern identities. As Rob Rydell (2008) outlines, international scholarship on exhibitions comprises a rich and varied field of historical and cultural research. But with some significant exceptions, Australian historiography on colonial and national contributions to international exhibitions has been surprisingly limited given the huge contemporary impact of these events (Cowley and McCormack 1995; Davison 1983, Davison 1988; Hoffenberg 2001; McKay 1997, McKay 2004; Proudfoot et al 2000). This volume brings together, across disciplinary perspectives, case studies of exhibitions mounted in Australia and overseas; investigations of complimentary exhibitionary forms such as bazaars and trade shows; histories of art and design; and explorations of colonial and national identities. This original research adds considerably to a more complex understanding of Australia’s exhibition, commercial and artistic histories.


Arising from the political and economic imperatives of imperialism and industrialisation, nineteenth-century exhibitions shaped understandings of the world at local, national and global levels. They asserted the confidence and power of European nations, especially Britain and France, the rise of the United States, and the place of colonial and ‘exotic’ non-Western societies within the international order. This was a dynamic process for metropolitan and colonial societies alike, for exhibitions were ‘agents of change, creating by participation and not coercion a sense of the national order, consensus, and hierarchy’ (Hoffenberg 2001, 27). The collective international sensibility that enveloped individualised displays of a specific nation and place meant that the geographies, the peoples and material culture of the world were ‘known’ in relation to each other.

For instance, exhibitions were important sites for influencing British metropolitan understandings of the ‘idea of Africa’ (Coombes 1994); the transatlantic spread of American mass culture (Rydell and Kroes 2005); the relations between the Netherlands and the Dutch East Indies (Bloembergen 2006); and, as this collection demonstrates, the different and shared experiences of the Australian colonies.

In 1855, the Australian colonies of Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania sent exhibits to the Paris Exhibition, including many objects produced by Indigenous Australians. Elizabeth Willis (2008) examines these objects, and observes that they were collected first-hand by settlers, not as obsolete curios, but as items of working industry and an adaptable culture. Willis argues that these items, such as weapons, foodstuffs, baskets and decorative ornaments, were displayed as products of a labour that was shared across the peoples of the world. But if this view of a common humanity was prevalent in the 1850s, it was quickly being eclipsed by the spread of Social Darwinism, and the hardening of the popular acceptance of hierarchical ideas about race and civilisation. In the context of exhibitions and museums, Aboriginal objects of industry and skill were thus positioned as ‘primitive’ curiosities. Willis’s study highlights two themes that run through this collection. This first is the racialised nature of colonialism, and the centrality of race to modern capitalism and commodification (McClintock 1990). The second is the ways that cultural meanings are ascribed to material culture through the mutually reinforcing frameworks of ideology and social regulation, institutional and media contextualisation and audience reception and subjectivities.

Melbourne’s Intercolonial Exhibition of Australasia of 1866–67 was the first occasion to bring the antipodean colonies together to compare their manufacturing and natural resources. This national exhibition also provided a sorting-place for the selection of exhibits to be shipped to the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1867. Emily Harris (2008) finds that the displays of Indigenous cultural material at the Intercolonial Exhibition were (in contrast to the 1855 Exhibition) mostly separated out from more prominent displays of white manufacture, mirroring the activities of colonial governments to bring Indigenous people under state control on missions and reserves. However, when the Australian colonies exhibited internationally, as in Paris, they chose not to compete with the industrial might of Europe or the United States, but to represent their distinctiveness primarily through ethnographic displays of Indigenous culture and specimens of Australia’s unique plants and animals.

As Peter Hoffenberg (2001) has pointed out, nineteenth-century displays of Empire at international exhibitions constructed a ‘tripartite imperial world of “England”, “India”, or subject colonies, and “Australia”, or settler societies’ (xiv). These ‘object lessons’ of Empire, Penny Edmonds (2008) argues, incorporated the displays of Indigenous artefacts in the Victorian and Tasmanian courts at the 1866–67 Intercolonial Exhibition into a racialised world view. This world view was informed not only by the relationship between the colonies and the metropolis, but by localised conditions and concerns. Edmonds argues that sections of Melbourne’s press and public had hoped that the exhibition would provide a serious forum to investigate the ‘demise’ of Aboriginal society, and the ongoing violence towards Indigenous peoples that was systemic to the colonial order. But such anxieties were swamped by the imperative of the exhibition to showcase triumphant narratives about the progressiveness of its Anglo-Saxon colonisers, who were also subjects of Empire.

Exhibitions provided a space where the emergence of a national white Australian identity jostled with intercolonial rivalry, dominated by the richer colonies of Victoria and New South Wales. The emphasis of exhibits mounted by the smaller, more remote colonies was on raw materials, such as the giant Western Australian jarrah obelix studded with ores exhibited in Sydney in 1873. Indeed, as Lise Summers (2008) demonstrates, Western Australia’s patchy participation in international and intercolonial exhibitions during the nineteenth century was curtailed by its small population, financial difficulties and lack of autonomy. In Queensland, exhibitions played a significant role promoting trade, attracting investment and raising the profile of the colony (McKay 2004). Joanne Scott and Ross Laurie’s examination of Queensland’s first ‘at home’ Intercolonial Exhibition in Brisbane in 1876 provides insight into the capacity for local boosterism. The exhibition’s emphasis on Queensland’s abundant natural resources and pastoral and mining industries – consciously positioned as competitive within a national and imperial economy – was coupled with a celebratory account of the colony’s journey towards sophisticated educational and artistic pursuits. In common with other forms of Australian colonial representation, this celebratory mode was riven with anxiety and omission, most notably of the ‘expropriation of the land from Indigenous people and in some cases uses of Indigenous labour [which was] fundamental to the colony’s economy’ (Scott and Laurie 2008, 6.7).

It is now difficult to grasp the imposing extent and sometimes bizarre nature of the material culture of the nineteenth-century exhibitions. Confining herself to one type of object, Linden Gillbank (2008) takes a much used and abused colonial artefact – wood – and traces its fortunes in Melbourne exhibitions from the 1850s to the 1880s that were organised through the auspices of government botanist and director of the Botanic Gardens, Ferdinand von Mueller. Von Mueller passionately believed science and knowledge was necessary to underpin the development of the timber industry, but his approach fell from favour and his directorship was stripped from him, to the great detriment of Victoria’s timber exhibits. These exhibits, like much of the material culture of Australian displays at the international exhibitions, are now lost forever and have to be painstakingly reconstructed from photographs and archives.

However, some exhibition memorabilia has remained in circulation, including the humble postcard. Jonathan Sweet (2008) reflects on the role of the postcard as an ephemeral but personalised exhibition relic. Postcards promoted and commemorated exhibitions, as did a range of other mass-produced souvenirs such as medals and chinaware. The extensive ethnographic displays and dioramas that were to become increasingly prominent in international exhibitions, and the fantasy-like layout of pavilions and precincts within overall exhibition sites, enabled visitors to experience a ‘world tour’ (see Hinsley 1991). Exhibition postcards were emblematic of this simulated travel, but also represented the affordability of postal communications and, at least for the middle-classes, the rise of domestic and international tourism.

Government and business interests led the organisation and promotion of exhibitions in the Australian colonies, and the championship of colonial exhibitions abroad. But the great international and intercolonial exhibitions were also part of a larger and not always respectable Victorian entrepreneurial culture. There was considerable slippage between educational instruction and entertainment; in the United States, the display of goods and people for pleasure and profit was best personified by the dime museum and showman entrepreneur, Phineas T Barnum (see Bogdan 1988; Poignant 2004). David Goodman (1990) has argued that a colonial ‘fear of circuses’ stimulated the founding of the National Museum of Victoria as an elite place of scientific leaning and classification rather than popular amusement. In order to be successful, exhibitions had to be financially viable, and many an international exhibition closed with a financial loss. Perhaps the best known commercial entrepreneurs associated with the touring and direction of exhibits in late nineteenth century Australia were Jules Joubert and Richard Twopeny. David Dunstan (2008) introduces another extraordinary entrepreneur: the maverick Melbourne doctor and showman Louis Lawrence Smith, whose career illustrates the shift towards the provision of more democratic and inclusive leisure pursuits in this period for the Australian populace. As the colourful chairman of the Trustees of the Melbourne Exhibition Building for two decades, Smith presided over numerous popular and commercial ventures on the site, including its famous aquarium.

During Smith’s time, Melbourne’s Exhibition Building was often used for fund-raising carnivals and monster bazaars. Steeped in the traditions of philanthropy and charity work, Annette Shiell (2008) argues that such bazaars exalted middle-class women’s fundraising abilities while providing new, and sexualised, opportunities for social interactions in theatrical settings. In 1883, for instance, an International Fair was mounted to raise funds for the building of St Patrick’s Cathedral. The goods for purchase were arranged in ‘courts’ that represented 10 nations, and the stallholders donned exotic ‘national costumes’. According to Martha Sear (2008, 14.3), by the 1880s the bazaar and the exhibition were ‘well established display forms with powerfully opposing ideologies’. The bazaar, with its sale of domestic goods produced by the unpaid labour of middle-class women, destabilised the ideological underpinnings of the capitalist marketplace. The exhibition, on the other hand, ordered and refined commercial activity through the ban on the direct sale of goods, and the focus on the meaning and arrangements of objects, rather than their monetary value. In a parallel development, and as an institution of the exhibition age, it was the modern department store that was to successfully combine the new object-centred display practices with modern retail activity.

Another manifestation of nineteenth-century exhibition culture in the public sphere were the sober, educative and overtly masculine demonstrations of new technologies that were so popular in colonial Australia. As Elizabeth Hartrick (2008) explains, such gatherings were referred to as conversaziones. They emerged from and were supported by an infrastructure for the promotion of practical science and public education. Mechanic’s Institutes and Working Men’s Colleges played a central role in self-improvement and vocational training, and encouraged a widespread appreciation of modern technology and ideas through discussion and demonstration. For instance, in 1861 John Woolley, professor of Classics and Logic at the fledgling University of Sydney, opened the Wollongong School of Arts. He spoke of the resolution of colonists to found a ‘New Britannia in another world’, supported by the objective of public educational institutions:

Our object is not so much to teach, as to stimulate thought and promote self-training. Our best hope is the universal diffusion of curiosity and information. This will hardly be awakened by books. (Woolley c. 1861, 45).

The conversaziones described by Hartrick that occurred in Melbourne and Auckland in the 1880s are examples of such ‘learning through looking’, and were directed to audiences beyond the elite colonial scientific societies. Among the new-fangled gadgets on show were telephones, phonographs and microphones, and these were explained through a ‘factual’ mixture of lecture, demonstration and interactive audience engagement. In disseminating scientific ideas to non-specialist audiences by drawing upon international trends in popular scientific education, conversaziones provide another example of the enormous influence and democratisation of forms of exhibition culture to the spread of knowledge during the nineteenth century.


The height of the international exhibition movement coincided with the late nineteenth-century ‘age of Empire’, when the imperial ambitions and power of European nations and the United States straddled the globe. The culture and political aspirations of the Australian colonies were shaped by membership of the wider British world, including the United States, and the circulation of people, goods and ideas within this expansive network. The late nineteenth century was also a period of intense nationalism within Australia, as the colonies moved towards the founding of the federated commonwealth in 1901. Yet in surveying the eight self-proclaimed ‘international’ exhibitions held in Australia from Sydney 1879 to Coolgardie in 1899, Linda Young (2008) finds that far from expressing an independent Australian nationalism, these exhibitions manifested a deep colonial identification with Britain and aspirations ‘to be like England’.

Exhibitions were, of course, events where identities and social relations in terms of gender and class were ‘on display’, not just in the ordering and meanings ascribed to objects but in the large-scale interactions that occurred among audiences. Women were avid participants at exhibitions which, like the museum, expanded the opportunities for ‘rational recreation’ beyond the middle-classes, and this included working-class women. But women of all classes also avidly partook of the mass amusements, and services such as the tearooms and refreshment stalls. In the romance novels of Ada Cambridge, Susan K Martin (2008) finds the Melbourne exhibitions of the 1880s identified as a libidinal space, full of private trysting places as well as endless opportunities to define oneself through one’s taste and consumption. The fictional representations of imperial relations as enacted through the exhibitions provided a model, Martin argues, of ‘the mutually disruptive nature of colony and centre, and impossible balancing act of opposing forces’ (Martin 2008, 13.8). In other words, the reconciliation of nation and Empire was always being negotiated at multiple levels of meaning.

Martha Sear (2008) shows how women entered the exhibition field not only as erotic objects and consumers, but also as sellers, organisers and commissioners. The Exhibition of Women’s Industries and Centenary Fair, held in Sydney in 1888, had an all-female organising committee dedicated to legitimising women’s work and their contribution to national enterprise. Exhibitions were places where women could materialise political aspirations, including women’s suffrage; express their dissatisfaction with patriarchy; and promote the idea of universal womanhood. The NSW commissioner of women’s work at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, Lady Margaret Windeyer, espoused the political ideals of women’s suffrage and federalism in that international forum. Australian feminism, Sear argues, has an exhibition history in national and international contexts – and exhibitions provided ‘an arena for the realisation of transnational feminism’ (Sear 2008, 14.11).

Histories of Australian art in the nineteenth century are also explicitly bound up with the exhibition movement. As Caroline Jordan (2008) points out, the Paris Salon and the Royal Academy in Britain provided legitimisation for Australian artists during the nineteenth century because there were simply no equivalent local societies. Thus the two international exhibitions in Melbourne in 1880 and 1888 provided unusual opportunities for colonial artists to have their work judged in academy-style settings, complete – as in all classes of exhibition competition – with medals, certificates and an appeal system. At both Melbourne exhibitions, the skilled and popular botanical artist Ellis Rowan was to triumph over her male professional peers, including the ‘striving’ nationalist Tom Roberts. This sparked a flurry of appeals from Roberts and others that reveal the politics surrounding Australian art, including the tensions between amateur and professional artists.

Alison Inglis (2008) has examined another powerful female art world figure of boomtime Melbourne in the patron Lady Loch, wife of the Governor of Victoria. Loch played a key role in bringing the Grosvenor Gallery Intercolonial Exhibition to Melbourne in 1887. The touring of international art to the Australian colonies, as seen by the Grosvenor Exhibition, was important in shaping the appreciation of ‘British taste’ and the avant-garde among middle-class colonists. The art on display at the Grosvenor Exhibition was seen at the time to further the aesthetic and cultural bonds that were dispersed, but shared, across the British imperial world. The creation of the new commonwealth in 1901 inspired the acquisitive Federal Art Exhibitions of Australian art, held at the Art Gallery of South Australia every year from 1898 to 1923. Catherine Speck (2008) explores the transformation in attitudes towards Australian art, and its collection, through the exhibitions in this period of consolidating nationalism.

Australians staged many other exhibitions that celebrated the unity of the new nation. For instance, in 1905, the first of several ‘All-Australia’ exhibitions was organised by the Australian Natives Association at the Royal Melbourne Exhibition Building to highlight the viability of nationally produced goods and inventions. In 1907 the grandly titled First Australian Exhibition of Women’s Work opened at the same venue, attracting more than 25,000 paying visitors who viewed 16,000 exhibits and demonstrations from rifle-shooting to a model crèche. At these ‘at home’ exhibitions, as in the exhibits that were sent overseas, the definitive feature of ‘Australianness’ remained one of white Britishness (Darian-Smith 2007).

In the first half of the twentieth century, Australia’s official participation in exhibitions abroad was increasingly focused on events that highlighted its membership within the British Empire. In 1924–25, the British Empire Exhibition was staged at Wembley as a confident reassertion of unified British imperial patriotism and economic strength following the devastation of the First World War. The Australian Pavilion at Wembley highlighted Australia’s status within the imperial ‘family’ as white Dominion rather than ‘exotic’ colony. The focus of the displays remained, as in the colonial period, on Australia as a primary producer and exporter of natural resources back to the heart of the Empire rather than an increasingly independent nation with an industrialising economy.

In the inter-war years, Australia leaders in government, business and the arts recognised the promotional role of exhibitions in stimulating trade and encouraging immigration. But there were increasing criticisms directed at the old-fashioned displays of agricultural production or Australia’s distinctive animals and plants, and calls to present images of Australia as a modern and culturally sophisticated nation. At the New York World’s Fair in 1939, while the Australian Pavilion was an annex of the British Pavilion and suggested an ongoing dependence, this was at odds with the assertions of independence and modernity in the interior displays. Under the direction of graphic designer Douglas Annand, Australia was projected as technically progressive – even if this was exemplified by agricultural machinery and rail transport (Barnes and Jackson 2008).

The influence of modernist architecture and design in the mounting of Australian exhibits in international contexts and in localised trade shows was becoming increasingly prominent. This signalled a new approach to the integration of architectural and design elements across all aspects of displays, encompassing colour schemes, lighting and details such as signage and finishes. Robin Grow (2008) argues that the Centenary All-Electricity Exhibition held in Melbourne in 1935 (a Depression-era extravaganza of Art Deco styling promoting domestic electrical goods and services) marked a watershed in the design of similar trade shows. Although the All-Electricity Exhibition was a highly localised event, it was inspired by international trends. Edward Fielder Billson, the noted Australian architect charged with implementing the overall exhibition, was impressed by the integrated approach to design at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, which had featured an Electrical Building. In the 1940s and 1950s, Melbourne’s Exhibition Building was the site of several influential commercial displays; at the 1949 House of Tomorrow exhibition, for instance, modernist design was promoted in tandem with modern consumer goods.

International exhibitions ceased during the Second World War, and the movement experienced a lull in the period immediately afterwards. When it re-emerged, it was with less extravagance and a shift in focus. While traditionally the nations of Britain, France and the United States had been prominent in hosting and shaping the character of earlier exhibitions, those in the postwar period were largely dominated by the United States, Canada and Japan. There was no official Australian presence at the international exhibitions in Brussels in 1958, Seattle in 1962 and New York in 1964–65.

However, the Australian Government remained committed during the 1950s and 1960s to the promotion of Australian art and culture in Britain as a stimulus for trade and to attract migrants. Sarah Scott’s (2008) examination of the government-sponsored ‘Australian Painting: Colonial, Impressionist, Contemporary’ at the Tate Gallery in London in 1963 is revealing of Prime Minister Robert Menzies’s conservative view of how Australia should be portrayed abroad: as a staunch member of the British Commonwealth with a celebratory path towards modern nationhood. But the Tate Gallery exhibition, rather than ushering in a contemporary and dynamic vision of twentieth-century Australia, came to be seen as the last in a long line of colonial art exhibitions exported to the motherland.

Australia’s gradual economic disengagement with Britain in the postwar decades provided the stimulus for its return, after an absence of almost 30 years, to the international exhibition circuit with an official Australian pavilion at the 1967 Universal and International Exhibition in Montreal known as Expo ’67. The displays emphasised the nation’s scientific and technical expertise, and included models of the Parkes radio telescope and the Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Scheme, but also the very popular Expo Sound Chairs designed by Grant and Mary Featherston. Carolyn Barnes and Simon Jackson (2008) argue that the representation of a modern and sophisticated Australia was further emphasised by the innovative design of the Australian Pavilion at the 1970 Japan World Exposition in Osaka, where the main body of the building was suspended from a cantilevered and monumental ‘sky-hook’. Expo ’70 was the first international exhibition held in Asia, and marked Japan’s postwar return to international citizenship. The Australian pavilion exhibits, under the direction of modernist architect Robin Boyd, emphasised the nation’s invention and technology but also the increasing importance of Australia–Japan trade and cultural relations.

In the second half of the twentieth century, the host cities of international exhibitions were increasingly concerned with promoting their own regional significance. Following an established practice of linking a national celebration to a localised exhibition, Brisbane’s Expo ’88 coincided with Australia’s Bicentennial celebrations of European settlement – although its role as a national-building exercise was minimal (Craik 1992; Bennett 1992). Instead, under the theme of ‘leisure in an age of technology’, Expo ’88 was explicitly seen by its boosters to drag the city into a progressive and global future, as well as positioning the state of Queensland as a key destination for both Australians and foreign tourists and investors (Sanderson 2003).

Like the other exhibitions examined in this volume, the experience of Expo ’88 illustrates the contradictions and ambiguities between international aspirations, national symbols and aims, and localised priorities. It also demonstrates the remarkable continuity of ideas about progress and international cooperation that have underpinned exhibitions since the time of the Crystal Palace, and the changes that have occurred in how Australia and its peoples – especially Indigenous Australians – have been exhibited and their achievements celebrated. With the international exhibition movement now in its third century, we can look towards future displays of Australia’s creativity and commerce, the meanings attached to this self-fashioning and its associated material culture, in localised and global contexts.


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Cite this chapter as: Darian-Smith, Kate. 2008. ‘Seize the Day: Exhibiting Australia’. Seize the Day: Exhibitions, Australia and the World, edited by Darian-Smith, Kate; Gillespie, Richard; Jordan, Caroline; and Willis, Elizabeth. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 1.1–1.14.

© Copyright 2008 Kate Darian-Smith
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   by Kate Darian-Smith, Richard Gillespie, Caroline Jordan, Elizabeth Willis