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The Australian colonies held eight international exhibitions between 1879 and 1899, in Sydney, Melbourne (two), Adelaide, Launceston, Hobart, Brisbane and Coolgardie. Each was a great local event, in a specially constructed building, uniting the spectacle of primary products and commercial manufactures with the popular attractions of sideshow. This paper argues that in adopting the genre of international expos, the Australian exhibitions sought to demonstrate to the world that the colonies were prosperous, civilised and British – a proof of colonial continuity and parity with the metropole.

By their own account, the Australian colonies held eight international exhibitions between 1879 and 1899, and New Zealand held one, too. The first four may be counted as the real thing, made international by the official participation of more than, say, 15 nations and fellow colonies. The later exhibitions were ‘international’ in rhetoric rather than reality, constituting gestures to participate in the great manifestation of commercial progress of the times. In the following table, the exhibitions in Sydney, Melbourne (the two of them) and Adelaide make the cut as fully realised specimens of the genre of international exhibitions; the remainder were essentially exercises in local boosterism, augmented by a string of foreign exhibits rounded up by an energetic entrepreneur. Summer was the usual exhibition season, stretching the southern exhibitions over the turn of the year.


Table 1. Australia’s eight international exhibitions between 1879 and 1899.

In summary, each exhibition made a big local splash. Each generated a specially constructed building, a sequence of rituals accompanied by music and processions, and a show that joined the spectacle of modern commercial achievements with the popular attractions of sideshow: a grand statement of civil order, cultural authority and economic production. Each exhibition presented a vision of the host-colony’s official existence, leading with the primary products that brought wealth to the elite and employment to the workers, and bolstered by a nod to artisans and ladies, whose goods underscored the implied unity of labour and capital. At the same time, each exhibition was infused with an aura of international consciousness in which the relevant colony’s products were presented for global trade in a context of booming prosperity (which was, as often as not, a nervous or even hollow claim, made to reassure local confidence as much as to attract merchants, investors and immigrants).

All shared a flowery narrative of achievement in which primary products and manufactures – material things – demonstrated the assets of the colony and the industry of the colonists. The rhetoric of newspaper commentary and judges’ reports presented the exhibited goods as evidence of distinctively British intelligence and industry on the progressivist scale of art and civilisation. This means of naturalising colonial domination contrasted to the much-cited empty, unworked land, until recently ‘an arid wilderness, occupied by blackfellows and a very few kangaroos’, as was said at the opening of the Coolgardie exhibition.1 The Australian exhibitions offered proof that the colonies were prosperous, advanced, civilised: ‘neo-Britains’ showing, in the words of the Cantata for the Sydney International Exhibition, ‘how like England we can be’ (Cantata 1879).

This chapter argues that the colonial exhibitions were inspired by the ambition, more cultural than economic, to reproduce the motherland in the antipodes, proving both continuity and parity of the colonies with the metropole. Far from asserting idiosyncratic Australian identities, I suggest that the exhibitions were grounded in a colonial commitment to the transnational mid nineteenth-century ideal of an industrial (or at least industrious) civilisation in which the products of men’s and women’s work improved the lives of all with modernity, comfort and art. There was always an economic base to this discourse, or rather, an economic dream, that colonial products could make the money which would underwrite comfort and art. But the rhetoric of ingenuity and high purpose applied to productivity rationalised the exhibitions beyond sheer display to the status of Zeitgeist. Even when the later exhibitions in the more distant colonies confronted their less-than-global presence, they reiterated the goal of proving civilisation and improving the citizenry by displaying the evidence of productive, creative British agency on the periphery.

The events of international exhibitions tend to be repetitive. Hence the major forms of exhibition culture are outlined here via the Sydney and Melbourne International Exhibitions, and the subsequent descriptions aim to introduce one or more aspects shared by all, without repeating similarities.


The tenor of the colonial Australian response to the call for contributions to the proposed Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations was vividly expressed in an 1850 editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald:

There can be no doubt that the Australian colonies are looked upon by reflecting men in Europe with intense interest … Is it presumptuous, then, to suppose that … curiosity will be on the alert to find out what symptoms of strength the infant Hercules, while yet rocked in his cradle, has begun to put forth?2

But in the event, a motley collection of uncoordinated items represented New South Wales (NSW) and Van Diemen’s Land, rescued at the very end of the exhibition with a shot at glamour when specimens of the first Australian gold arrived in London. Belatedly recognising what an opportunity such exhibitions offered for international promotion, the colonies made much more serious efforts to despatch convincing collections to the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1855. Both NSW and newly separated Victoria held preview exhibitions at home the year before, producing the first Australian exhibition medals to reward exhibitors.

Exhibition-consciousness now permeated the minds of colonial gentlemen and artisans of advanced mind, sharing a vision of industry informed by the latest science and improved by modern art. The Australian vision was largely manifested in exhibits of raw materials such as wool, timber, wheat and minerals, supported by samples of cloth, furniture and gold, in nuggets as well as specimen luxury objects. The manufactures proved colonial taste, while the primary products could be usefully exposed to international markets. Framed by the evidence of a viable economy and civilised standards of living, the lure to potential investors and emigrants was clear to colonial governments, which therefore sponsored representative collections, cheap transport of exhibits and official presence. In this framework, all the colonies except Western Australia participated more or less consistently in the calendar of nineteenth-century international exhibitions.

International exhibitions rapidly became a characteristic motif of the later nineteenth century, in a genre shaped by the decennial spectacles produced in London and Paris, punctuated by major shows elsewhere in Europe and in the USA. Their focus on the treasure-houses of their respective empires militated against the colonies launching into exhibitions of their own (Ireland was unique in holding exhibitions in 1853 and 1874). The first new world exhibitions took place in Santiago de Chile in 1875 and Capetown in 1877, and from 1880, the pace of international exhibitions throughout the world quickened mightily.


The Sydney International Exhibition was Australia’s first. It transpired much to the chagrin of Victoria, and colonial rivalry may have been the impetus that pushed the Sydney scheme over the line of realisation. Plenty of doubt had obtained in the circles of influence in which it was first advocated, the sphere of gentlemanly agriculture and commerce, undergirded by the apparatus of colonial government, education and science (Fletcher 1986). However, once yoked to the concept, the same realm of influence ensured the exhibition project would flourish. The official Commission for the Sydney International Exhibition met for the first time in January 1879; the show opened in September the same year.

The Garden Palace exhibition building was constructed in the Domain (between what is today the Conservatorium and the State Library). Victorian Classical in style, it was a grand timber-framed cruciform hall with basement and galleries, surmounted by an imposing segmented dome, painted stone colour externally and rather modestly decorated inside. The rhetorical grandeur of an international exhibition was carried by allegorical paintings of the continents below the dome, an organ and concert stage at one end, and a bronze statue of Queen Victoria. New South Wales and four other Australian colonies, minus only Western Australia, plus New Zealand, filled the southern end of the Palace. Britain occupied the largest segment of the northern end, abutted by France, Germany, Belgium, Austria-Hungary, Switzerland, the United States and Japan. Sundry other colonies such as Fiji and the Straits Settlements claimed a national nameplate over a small display in the galleries, where overflow and specialist material such as the Australian Museum’s display of ethnographic material and Queensland’s Palm Court were housed. Further display halls for agriculture, machinery and art were built in the grounds, together with cafes, photographic studios and sideshows.


Figure 1. Imperial fealty: The rhetoric of exhibitions employed a tradition of classical allegory, here situating the Sydney International Exhibition as loyal homage to Queen Victoria.
Richards & Co., Sydney: Album, 1879. (Courtesy of State Library of Victoria)

The colonial exhibits chiefly comprised primary products: minerals, wool, wheat and other agricultural goods. Colonial manufactures were numerous but idiosyncratic, consisting of whatever individuals offered rather than any consistent survey of local manufacturing. The foreign exhibits were also motley products contributed largely by firms on the international trade show circuit. Self-selection is a condition of any free enterprise competition, but the discourse of universal representation established by the 1851 exhibition’s subtitle, the ‘Works of Industry of All Nations’, implied a breadth of national and international equity that was keenly adopted by exhibition boosters, though rarely substantiated by reality.

Most prestigious of all exhibits were the artworks, which were displayed in a separate art gallery in the Garden Palace grounds. The quality of the collection of 259 paintings and sculptures was constrained by the distance, time and risk involved in lending to Australia, and local connoisseurs felt somewhat slighted. Even so, it constituted the first exhibition of contemporary European and British art shown in the colonies. As such, the judges noted that it had done ‘good educational service to the masses of the people, propagating sound principles of taste and awakening a love for the beautiful’(Notes 1881, 320; Official Record 1881, cviii). Several works were acquired for the New South Wales National Gallery.

More than 14,000 exhibits filled the Garden Palace (not counting items in the art, machinery and agricultural halls); they were entered in six departments, subdivided into 446 classes (Official Record 1881, clxix–clxxxvi). They were judged for 7554 awards, and rewarded by a fine bronze medal and/or a certificate, both locally designed, featuring the conventional visual trope of classically draped maidens representing hosts, participants, commerce, agriculture, science and art, bolstered by native fauna and flora, to indicate the parity of Australian colonial civilisation in world culture. When the exhibition closed in April 1880, the oratory expressed the same values as the prize imagery. New South Welsh Australians (both colonial and national conditions were addressed) were assured that the world had seen the proof of the success of British transplantation to southern shores and acknowledged it.

The exhibition made an official loss of £103,615, but even twenty five years afterwards it was credited with ‘a great quickening of trade, and many people who came merely as sightseers remained to prosecute lucrative business’ (Coghlan and Ewing 1903, 203). Such conclusions more than satisfied the dreams of the international exhibition project and encouraged further Australian exhibitions.

The Garden Palace survived only three years, burning in 1882 with the loss of colonial archives, a century of Indigenous collections, and the more recent exhibition products donated to form an embryonic technological museum. The museum slowly recovered and the Powerhouse Museum today claims the exhibition as its foundation genius. The Garden Palace site is marked by a sunken garden and commemorative gates.


The Melbourne International Exhibition was preceded by an energetic local commitment to the concept of exhibitions as a vehicle of colonial advertising. Having contributed indirectly to the Great Exhibition as part of NSW, post-separation Victoria was determined to trumpet its new gold-rush wealth with a fabulous showing at the 1855 Exposition Universelle in Paris, and began the habit of pre-international exhibition displays of its goods at home in Melbourne in 1854, held thereafter in 1861, 1866, 1872 and 1875. Evidence of Victorian flair for showmanship was the first ‘gold’ obelisk, representing the tons of precious ore extracted from Victorian mines at the 1862 Exhibition in London; the form rapidly became a staple of exhibition symbolism (Sweet 2001, 91).


Figure 2. Explicit wealth: The genius of exhibitions interpreted the larger meanings of products, as demonstrated by the vitrine of Victorian gold nuggets (under police guard) overshadowed by the model representing total production, shown at the Melbourne International Exhibition.
Australasian Sketcher 9 October 1880. (Courtesy of State Library of Victoria)

The Melbourne International Exhibition was planned simultaneously with Sydney’s, but chance and bad luck put it second on Australia’s exhibition calendar. Intercolonial rivalry aside, it was anticipated that the series of the two exhibitions would reinforce each other by encouraging foreign exhibitors to participate with the lure of two for the price of one voyage. Still, the Victorian authorities tried very hard to obtain more, newer and larger exhibits than had been shown in Sydney, and they succeeded. Three new exhibitors contributed with official commissions (Italy, India and Western Australia) and 11 more nations and colonies sent sundry goods for the first time. The total participation amounted to 23 national or colonial commissions and 11 unofficial national contributions, the greatest number ever to participate in an Australian exhibition.

The Melbourne Exhibition Building was erected in 1879, bigger and more solid than the Garden Palace, but of the same Victorian Classical style with domed format aisle-and-transept plan.3 It was flanked by a vast temporary machinery hall and the usual appurtenances of fairground pleasures in newly planted gardens. In allegorical imagery, decorative scheme and provision for music performances, it followed the conventions of earlier exhibition palaces.

Contemporary Victorian protectionist trade policy would have seemed to shape an unfriendly atmosphere for an international trade show, but two contrasting aims nurtured the typological displays. In a period of surging small business, the Victorian Manufacturers and Exhibitors Association encouraged contributions from the kind of manufacturing which could have suffered from competition with big international firms, but evidenced the requisite exhibition ideal of opportunity and industry (Parris and Shaw 1980, 242). At the same time, capital-hungry mining companies allowed individual interests to be melded into unified representations of wealth to stimulate investment. Thus Victoria’s total gold production was displayed at the exhibition in the form of a huge rhombic dodecahedron (‘the form in which the crystallised gold is always found’), proudly described as representing 49,098,408 ounces, 11 pennyweight and 6 grains, valued at £196,393,634 (Massina 1880, 78). Such minute precision of vast figures exemplifies a characteristic mode of presenting information in the exhibition universe, seeming to buttress the sheer reality of object displays.

The purposes and achievements of the Melbourne International Exhibition were expressed in numerous celebratory poems in which the idea of British civilisation in Australia appears again and again, for example:

And that true spirit of the British race
Which makes the wilderness a dwelling place,
And wrestles the desert into fruitful soil;
Swift on the track of the bold pioneer
Science and learning and the arts appear … (Andrews 1880)

The Official Record of the exhibition recorded 12,791 exhibitors, showing 32,000 exhibits, rewarded with 3008 medals and 6663 certificates. The exhibition received more than 1.3 million visitors in its eight-month run, and though it recorded an official loss of £277,292, public and political enthusiasm for its positive outcomes remained high. The tremendous asset of the Exhibition Building survived to become a cornerstone of Victorian civic infrastructure (Dunstan 1996). It was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2004 as one of the very few remaining structures of the nineteenth century international exhibition movement.


After the exhibition, a private partnership, Joubert and Twopeny, toured a selection of international exhibits to Adelaide, Perth and Christchurch in 1881–82. Jules Joubert was an ‘adventurer and entrepreneur’ whose career as a property developer between 1839 and 1865 in Sydney, South Australia and the Victorian diggings, included imprisonment for debt in Adelaide and insolvency in Sydney (Rutledge 1972). Still, he was sufficiently a gentleman to be made Honorary Secretary of the Agricultural Society of NSW, for which he organised the 1870 Metropolitan Intercolonial Exhibition – NSW’s response to the Victorian Intercolonial Exhibition of 1866, another of the pre-foreign exhibition shows. It launched Joubert’s exhibition career, and led to his management of NSW contributions to the 1878 Exposition Universelle in Paris, where he had schooldays connections. Prone to exaggeration, he claimed the Sydney International Exhibition as his own idea and interpreted his expulsion from the organising commission as jealous perfidy (rather than the impropriety of shipping back his own goods with the duty free exhibits). He attended the exhibition as Commissioner for New Caledonia, and thanks to his links with the French exhibits, went on to the Melbourne International Exhibition.

Richard Twopeny was an English journalist based in Adelaide, where he too made a career of exhibition management as secretary of the South Australian Commissions to the 1878 Exposition in Paris (where he met Joubert) and the Sydney and then Melbourne Exhibitions (Ward 1976; Davison 1974, 296). Following the latter, Joubert and Twopeny brokered the tour that was known as the Adelaide Exhibition of the Arts and Industries of All Nations and the Perth International Exhibition, both in 1881 (Cargeeg 1881). The Adelaide show was open for nearly three months in specially constructed halls on Frome St; it was immensely popular and claimed a profit of more than £10,000 (Scott 1887, 10). The subsequent Perth and Christchurch exhibitions (whose details remain to be researched) failed to make money, and Joubert and Twopeny parted ways. Twopeny remained in New Zealand and advocated a joint colonial Australasian exhibition in London, a good idea subverted by intercolonial rivalries. In 1889, he promoted the Dunedin and South Seas Exhibition. Meanwhile Joubert organised the Calcutta International Exhibition in 1883; its success fuelled his Australian exhibition career.


South Australia had participated in the Sydney and Melbourne exhibitions but little overseas until local politics urged representation in the new imperial-rather-than-international-focused genre of the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London in 1886 (McKeough and Etherington 1984, 6). This experience crystallised South Australian interest in holding an international exhibition in Adelaide, urged on by Joubert and imbued with the patriotic glow of coinciding with the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria’s reign and the fiftieth anniversary of the colony’s foundation. The scheme was bolstered by the possibility of obtaining a preview of exhibitions bound for the planned exhibition in Melbourne in 1888, and despite continuing resistance by an anxious colonial treasury, it was finally confirmed for 1887 as the Adelaide Jubilee International Exhibition.

A new brick building, smaller than the NSW and Victorian specimens, was constructed on North Terrace opposite the Pulteney Street junction, in fashionable French Empire style with the obligatory dome. The opposite side stepped down a grand stairway to grounds towards the Torrens river, studded with the usual agriculture and machinery sheds as well as cafes and bars. The official national courts of 15 nations and colonies filled the basement, ground floor and galleries, augmented by nearly as many more essentially commercial exhibits claiming national provenances. They were toured intensively by nearly three quarters of a million visitors, at a time when Adelaide’s population amounted to 120,000 and the total in South Australia was 317,000 (McKeough and Etherington 1984, 4).


Figure 3. Educational visiting: Illustrators conventionally showed elegant visitors paying close attention to the world’s goods, here at the Adelaide Jubilee International Exhibition.
Illustrated Australian News, 23 July 1887. (Courtesy of State Library of Victoria)

The rhetoric of the Adelaide Jubilee International Exhibition typifies the discourse of Britain transplanted to the colonies, as in the chorus to the ‘Exhibition Ode’:


God bless them both, old England and the new …

Each helping each other, each to the other true …’ (Exhibition Ode 1887, 326)


In the vein of asserting the continuity of British culture, the exhibition featured an Old Colonists’ Court, the first such historically conscious presentation in an Australian exhibition. Free of the fear of the convict stain, it displayed portraits, sketches and watercolours, documents, relics of explorers and the first camp, and objects such as ‘a tooth from the first kangaroo caught by William Cooper and a native woman at Rapid Bay’ in 1836 – tokens of the settlers’ mastery of the new land (Scott 1887, 197–201). Another manifestation of the spirit of enlightened civilisation brought to the colonies was offered by two dioramas incorporating wax figures of ‘a lubra and piccaninnies’ and a fisher poised on a bark canoe with a spear. These had been shown the year before at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London, and continued a South Australian-pioneered tradition of dioramas, the first of which had depicted two figures at a bough shelter, flanked by six stuffed kangaroos, at the Melbourne International Exhibition.

Unusually, the Adelaide exhibition was said to have covered its costs, and was further hailed as a public project that had brought employment, investment and spectacle to a depressed colony (Vamplew 1990, 98). The Exhibition Building survived as the site for concerts, festivals, balls and shows, until overtaken by the 1936 Centennial Hall at Wayville, after which it became run down, the site sought by the adjacent university and Institute of Technology. It was demolished in 1962, and though still in living memory, has entirely disappeared from public presence.


An international exhibition seemed the model, modern way to celebrate the centenary of the British settlement of Australia, following the example of the 1876 Centennial International Exposition in Philadelphia. Yet despite a thriving economy, the elder colony, New South Wales, was reluctant to embrace the idea, with opposition even from Premier Sir Patrick Jennings, who had been the chief executive of the Sydney International Exhibition. (The sensitive issue of commemorating the convict foundation of the colony may also have contributed to NSW coolness.) Following cautious sounding out of the NSW view, Victorian interests began to advocate another great show in the Melbourne Exhibition Building. There was nearly as much doubt about the scheme in Victoria on account of the inevitable costs, but optimism and the argument that emigrants, employment and investment would follow an exhibition won the day, and the Melbourne Centennial International Exhibition was launched (Dunstan 1996, 189–90).

Demand for display space was soon so great that it was clear the Exhibition Building would require spacious annexes, and in the event, vast temporary sheds oriented around extensions to the two axes of the original building spread over the site on the north side. A brave decision was made to install electric lighting throughout. The annexes and electricity cost the large initial outlay of £126,000, but produced 33 acres of undercover exhibition space and the novelty of night-time spectacle.

The main axis of the exhibition building was presented as an Avenue of Nations, one of the internationalist devices of exhibitions established by the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1867 but not hitherto employed in Australia. Bigger trophies than ever before studded the Avenue, dominated in the French court by an Eiffel Tower (then still under construction for the 1889 exposition) composed of champagne bottles and a giant bust of Captain Cook, based on Sydney’s Hyde Park statue, in the NSW court. Cook made a further appearance in a waxwork diorama of the landing at Botany Bay in 1770, pointedly avoiding the immediate centenary of Captain Phillip’s establishment of the first colony. Two courts dedicated to the international themes of education and armaments were another first for the Centennial International Exhibition; they were described as ‘interesting features’. The upper galleries of the Exhibition Building housed the fine arts exhibits, dominated by an acclaimed loan collection of British pictures; one owner, the Duke of Westminister, presented a (still prized) Turner oil of Dunstanborough Castle to the National Gallery of Victoria.

But national representation was less than for the first Melbourne International Exhibition, doubtless reduced by the opportunities for nations to exhibit in three other great exhibitions in 1888 (the peak year for international exhibitions): Barcelona, Brussels and Glasgow, not to mention the next Exposition Universelle of 1889. Just 17 nations and colonies contributed official Commissions to Melbourne in 1888, as opposed to 23 in 1880.

Admission to the exhibition cost one shilling for adults and sixpence for children; for some weeks, Tuesdays were reserved as more exclusive half-crown days, but there was little demand for genteel separation and the lower charge was soon applied universally. Visiting the exhibition was already a well-understood experience for Victorians, and they attended in great numbers, though for different motives than the organisers had expected. The rhetoric of international exhibitions was grounded in the notion that artisans and producers would flock to observe the latest developments in arts and industry, ‘sufficient to induce a constant influx of visitors from all the colonies’. But as the Official Record observed, ‘the great mass of the public did not appear to appreciate these good intentions’ and that to attract them required amusements, such as an aquarium and a switchback railway outside in Carlton Gardens (Official Record 1889, 344).

Exhibitions had from the first been well supplied with dining rooms of various degrees of style, and even better supplied with ‘wine and beer tasting’ outlets, which coalesced at the Centennial International Exhibition into a popular suite of national bars in the cellar. Relaxation spots formed by garden displays organised by the Botanic Gardens studded the building, and Ada Cambridge noted them as rare quiet, respectable meeting places in her novel A Woman’s Friendship, serialised in the Age (Cambridge 1988). This offered a different insight from rather officious newspaper commentary into how the exhibition was actually used by Melbournians.


A group of advanced citizens of Launceston had tried since 1883 to raise government support for an international exhibition. They were diverted the second time it came to a Cabinet vote with the offer to establish the permanent Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery in 1887. But scheming continued and when the city council voted to build an Albert Hall and New Zealand interests expressed interest in exhibiting in a show, the Tasmanian government was persuaded to invite the other Australian colonies to a formal Tasmanian Exhibition scheduled for 1890. The event was delayed yet another year in the wake of the great maritime strike, but the additional months of preparation significantly improved the exhibition’s viability. Jules Joubert was engaged as general manager, fresh from promoting the New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition in Dunedin. A British Commission was established in London; all the Australasian colonies responded positively; and the apparatus of regular international exhibitors from France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland and the United States was engaged to appear. The exhibition opened in November 1891 and ran until the following March.4

Titled the Tasmanian International Exhibition, it attracted 262,059 visitors (when Launceston’s population was only 17,248). Nearly 1200 of the visitors took out season tickets complete with a passport photograph of the holder; the photographer who took them kept an album of named duplicates, which is today a treasure of the State Library of Tasmania, a rare visual record of a segment of the population (State Library of Tasmania 2005). Meanwhile, 1372 exhibitors entered 6826 exhibits and received a total of 1451 prizes. The final cost was £14,480 and the exhibition made a profit of £180/2/8.

The Albert Hall, which survives and is still in use for civic events, served as the ceremonial space of the exhibition. Behind it arose a temporary annexe, four times as large as the Hall. Visitors entered via a spacious fernery leading into the ‘profusion of flags, ornamental trophies, kiosks, and pavilions, amongst which the splendid trophy of the Mount Bischoff Tin Mining Company shines in all its silvery splendour’(‘Exhibition Supplement’). The vision of this glittering obelisk conjures the contemporary discourse that described the exhibitions, published in a daily genre of newspaper ‘Exhibition Notes’, so known since the Great Exhibition. Even the little exhibition in Launceston generated characteristic exhibition-text extolling local and foreign products and novelties, such as the following sample: ‘a collection comprising limestone, calcspar, fossils and an excellent sample of slaked lime’; ‘an exceedingly handsome little bookcase, containing 24 polished blocks of the native timbers … shaped to represent books, and so artistically finished that the visitor would imagine them to be literature rather than wood’; ‘a pretty exhibit in the form of a complete shoeing forge and samples of horse shoes, enclosed in a glass case’; ‘a grand display of irrigation pipes’; ‘the collection of opossum rugs for which this colony is celebrated’ (also including rugs of feral cat skins).5

Such items seem quaint today, but expressed the great learning principle of their age, the object lesson. This was pedagogy for the workers, supposed to learn by looking and comparing, which would lead to classification and abstract reasoning. As Graeme Davison writes, it is necessary to appreciate the 19th century capacity to be stirred by objects to understand the appeal of international exhibitions (Davison 1983, 6).


The effort to hold an international exhibition in Hobart just two years after the show in Launceston was a knee-jerk response of north–south rivalry – nothing else explains such a ‘grand exercise in egocentric colonial nationalism and regional parochialism’ (Mercer 1981, 37). The circumstances for an exhibition could have seemed blighted by the banking and property crash throughout the eastern colonies in 1891–92. But sufficient leading gentlemen urged the usual virtues of growth in employment and foreign investment and pointed out that the Launceston exhibition had made a small profit. Jules Joubert devised a shareholding company to fund the event, and more than 600 locals subscribed to it, including (eventually) the Tasmanian government. Thus the second Tasmanian International Exhibition was planned for the summer of 1894–95.

The exhibition building was sited high on the Domain, but to soothe popular resistance to encroachment on public land, it was always to be temporary. Built in conventional Victorian Classical style, a stucco finish elevated the basic timber character to something more elegant. It comprised a main building containing the concert hall, flanked by galleries for art, and opening off a long main hall where the Tasmanian goods featured. The intersection housed a spacious cafe, surmounted by an octagonal rotunda, with large windows and terraces overlooking the mountains and the river. Very different in layout to other exhibition buildings, long sheds enclosed a roughly triangular area containing gardens, outdoor machinery exhibits and sideshows. Two more long, narrow sheds crossed the gardens, so that the whole exhibition building was something of a maze of long, angular corridors. In historic photographs taken from Knocklofty, the complex of buildings looks uncomfortably like a panopticon prison (photo in Mercer 1981).

Indoors, the exhibits were thin. The global slump of the early 1890s undermined promises of industrial and manufacturing contributions from Britain, the United States and the other Australian colonies; in the event, only Victoria stumped up. This was disappointing, for Tasmania had been a loyal participant in other colonial exhibitions, but now faced the grim truth that it was a tiny market with more to gain by selling its products abroad than exhibitors were likely to make out of the island. At least the arts made a fine showing, with an important sale collection from the Royal Academy and a good selection of French artworks that had recently been displayed at the Lyon and Antwerp exhibitions. Several of these works remained in the colony, acquired by local connoisseurs and by the government.


Figure 4. Civic splendour: Launceston’s Albert Hall – still there – became the splendid civic relic of the exhibition, whose displays filled acres of temporary display halls behind.
Illustrated Australian News 1 January 1892. (Courtesy State Library of Victoria)

As a specimen of exhibitions in Australia, even the small-scale Hobart event put on a typical show of the range of ceremonial and musical events that had become core elements of exhibition conduct. The new organ destined for St Mary’s Cathedral was borrowed for the duration; a musical director was appointed, and applicants auditioned for the Grand Choir; more than 400 voices performed the locally composed exhibition cantata ‘The Land of Beauty’ at the opening ceremony. The orchestra gave weekly concerts, the brass band performed twice a day, and the Grand Choir sang Handel, Hayden and Mendelssohn oratorios at special events. This menu of music continued a tradition that had begun with the Great Exhibition and was offered in Australia from the first colonial show in Sydney, establishing an interesting class of Australian-composed exhibition cantatas.

When the Hobart Tasmanian International Exhibition closed, it was a financial loss to the shareholders, who blamed high customs duties imposed on foreign exhibits, the lack of drawcard exhibits, and an entertainment program that the public failed to appreciate as it should have. Nonetheless, the Mercury editorialised on the fundamental benefits of exhibitions: ‘In agriculture, technical work, minerals, the arts and in numerous other departments there were shown things which were object lessons to a large number, who have gone away wiser than they were before’.6 Exhibition optimism seemed an impregnable condition of the age.


Queensland had been a strategically choosy participant in international and colonial exhibitions since its first independent showing at the 1862 Exhibition in London. Of this effort, the colony’s representative wrote: ‘I think the Exhibition has done wonders in bringing the colony into notice … it has induced great numbers to emigrate to Queensland, many of them with considerable capital’, a line which summarised the rationale for every colonial involvement with international exhibitions thereafter (McKay 1997, 183).7 Yet colonial governments became wary of the vast cost of exhibitions after the first shows in Sydney and Melbourne. All subsequent Australian exhibitions were fomented by private citizens, fuelled by what a post-Tasmanian International Exhibition newspaper correspondent called ‘Joubertian exaggeration’, the eloquent promises of Jules Joubert to deliver exhibitions ‘on the soundest of principles with neither deficits nor red tape’.8 He achieved this feat at the Launceston exhibition – just – but never again. It was to be the same story in Brisbane.

Queensland had held local and intercolonial exhibitions since 1875, organised by the National Agricultural and Industrial Association at its Exhibition Grounds, known as the Ekka, in Bowen Park. A Romanesque-style brick exhibition building had been constructed there in 1892 (it became the home of the Queensland Museum after the Association collapsed in 1898). Thus there was extensive local experience and apparatus to hold an exhibition, but many doubted that the moment was right for Queensland to manage an international exhibition.

Joubert was behind a public meeting held in 1895 to launch the Queensland International Exhibition via a private company, which raised £10,000 in shares with rosy predictions of requiring no government support. Employed as General Manager, Joubert hired the Exhibition Grounds and Building and imported the annexe buildings from the Hobart Exhibition. But the absence of government patronage undermined the international credibility of the event and foreign exhibitor interest was scarce. The government tried too late to have a British Commission established, which would have publicised and legitimated the show in exporters’ eyes, as well as funnelled in artworks from the Royal Academy. Even the other Australian colonies failed to send official contributions. Fortunately, the regular exhibition pieces of individual British, European and colonial manufacturers offered a taste of international art and industry (McKay 1997, 198–199).

The official opening of the Queensland International Exhibition took place in May 1897 under the authority of the Governor, in the name of the Queen and her diamond jubilee. At the celebratory luncheon he reflected on its achievement in the tropes of globalising Britishness: ‘It was a wonderful thing to think that many in Queensland were among the first-comers into this colony … It spoke well for our Anglo-Saxon race, for the possibility of the country and its climate, and for the ingenuity and energy of its inhabitants (applause)’.9

The central business of the exhibition was to display the booming mining industry in the hope of encouraging international investment. The Department of Mines occupied a prominent position close to the entrance, displaying a huge collection of specimens, backed up by geological reports and maps. Towering over it was a variation on the monumental symbol of total extracted gold, a pair of gilded columns 35 feet high. They were flanked by 12 gilded obelisks representing the production of each major Queensland goldfield. Newspaper commentary started out admiring but gradually changed tone, realising that the show would have been more effective if held in London, where the investors were. To this end, the core of the Queensland International Exhibition minerals did indeed move on to the Greater Britain Exhibition of 1899. The traditional remit of Australian shows, agriculture, filled the bulk of the Exhibition Building with sheaves of produce, and the official annual agricultural show, timed for the end of the exhibition, brought in nearly 30 per cent of the miserable total visitation.


Figure 5. A grand event: Formal ritual, music and dress characterised exhibition opening ceremonies, as shown at the Queensland International Exhibition.
Queenslander 15 May 1897. (Courtesy State Library of Victoria)

The exhibition closed in August in an atmosphere of disappointment. The dream to promote the colony to the world – which inspired all the colonial exhibitions – had reached its limits. The smaller and more distant colonies met the reality that the world was not waiting to visit every ‘infant Hercules’ and that their markets could be more effectively addressed in the centre than on the periphery. Yet patriotic colonial enthusiasm seemed to be the raw material of Jules Joubert’s genius, and he coaxed it once again in Coolgardie.


Though Queensland was still the greatest Australian producer of gold in 1899, international investor attention had moved on to Western Australia, where the eastern goldfields were booming. Nonetheless, the proposal to hold an international exhibition, even one appropriately specialising in mining technology, in Coolgardie (several years since overtaken by Kalgoorlie), was a gesture of wilful grandeur. The exhibition was advocated by the Coolgardie Mine Managers Institute and the Workers’ Association (like many Westralian miners, mainly Victorians) to attract a survey of techniques and machinery suitable for treating the telluride ores then being produced (Stevenson 1989).10 A prospectus was circulated in 1898 setting forth the aim: ‘to test the suitability of [mining] machines to local requirements; to promote and foster Industry, Science and Art; to encourage invention; and to stimulate commerce’.11 Promises of British exhibits were delayed by the recession of 1898, and the exhibition timetable slipped a year.

The colonial government had agreed in 1897 to match the funds raised locally and promised to provide land and free rail transport for exhibits. When an exhibition building was erected the next year, the land was transferred to the municipal council, enabling it to borrow against the land value to fund the next stages of development. Sited on a corner of the thin, dusty street layout of Coolgardie, the permanent building of the local stone was capped by a double-storey, timber-frame octagon, the whole backed by corrugated iron temporary sheds; it subsequently became the School of Mines and then a technical school, and eventually burned down in the 1930s.

In the event, South Australia was the only national/colonial entity to be officially represented at the opening ceremony in March 1899, the British exhibits having been delayed. The Coolgardie Miner boasted it was ‘a stupendous undertaking … brought to successful issue’; the Kalgoorlie Miner suggested more cautiously that the show was a statement that ‘our people believe in Western Australia and its future’.12 Westralian material filled the exhibition: chiefly minerals and mining machinery, augmented by agricultural goods and timber (especially jarrah timber). In a tribute to heroic domestication of the arid interior, there were horticultural and poultry shows, as well as choral concerts and competitions.

The exhibition closed at the end of June 1898. It lived on, in that some of its local material travelled to the Paris 1900 and Glasgow 1901 exhibitions, and some of the mineral specimens on show formed the nucleus of the still extant WA state gold collection. But colonial consciousness had shifted to the uneasy new perspective of national Federation, and not even Jules Joubert could inspire another international exhibition in Australia.


The colonies had exhibited abroad for more than 20 years before the first Australian international show, and continued to participate internationally throughout the 20 years between the Sydney and Coolgardie International Exhibitions. Why did they engage in such costly projects for very thin rewards? One apt summary calls the world shows ‘the nineteenth century’s official visiting cards’ – national statements in the symbolic dimension of international relations, the equivalent today of the Olympic Games (Davison 1983, 5). The Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide exhibitions achieved a certain strategic recognition in the diplomacy of international commissions and the publicity of the big illustrated newspapers such as the Graphic – undoubtedly gratifying, though intangible, results. This perceived worth was further validated by the smaller colonies’ efforts. The imitative, me-too character of these 1890s performances testifies to a status competition among the Australian colonies in a world framework, as the motive in presenting small, remote exhibitions. That is to say, the dominant fractions of colonial society found it worthwhile to have the colonies noticed on the global stage not only as economic assets (all were already exporting often fabulous natural resources), but also as culturally competent, civilised social environments. The kind of proto-nations that understood the etiquette of exhibitions would be regarded as respectable places in which to live and invest.

This conclusion gestures to the view of international exhibitions as statements of purposeful nationalism, frequently grounded in racialised accounts of national legitimacy (Rydell 1984, 2–3). It can indeed be seen in the Australian exhibitions, especially in the moral contrast of primitive Indigenous land use versus that of productive British labour. In a specifically national perspective, much has been made of a distinctively Australian consciousness occasionally evident in exhibition displays and discourse. More influential, I think, was the constant rhetoric and overwhelming material presence of Britain as the maternal body and inspirational spirit of colonial identity. International exhibitions have been well analysed as vehicles to ‘glorify and domesticate empire’ by displaying the imperial domain as a raw treasure-house in need of metropolitan technique and sophistication (Greenhalgh 1988, 53–54). Meanwhile, from the colonial point of view gazing back to the power centre, the official ideology of the Australian exhibitions upheld an unswerving conviction of the continuity of ancestry, character, affection and loyalty, illustrated by the songs and poems quoted in this chapter. Their lyrics express the voice of the advanced gentlemen who promoted the exhibition cause even where it was clearly a chimera. Yet it seems that local colonialist sentiment could be satisfied as much by identification with British displays of consumer goods as by admiration of the Australian primary product trophies. The exhibitions show that Australian colonists were far from unwilling Britons.


1    Coolgardie Miner, 3 July 1899: 8.

2    Sydney Morning Herald, 16 March 1850: 2.

3    It became the Royal Exhibition Building only in 1980: Michael Pearson and Duncan Marshall, ‘Assessment of the 1997 Draft World Heritage Nomination for the Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens’, DEH, Canberra, 2002: 5.

4    Launceston Examiner, 26 November 1891, ‘Exhibition Supplement’.

5    Launceston Examiner, 21 December 1891.

6    Mercury, 16 May 1895: 2.

7    This section is almost entirely gathered from McKay’s extensive research (McKay 1997).

8    ‘Nous Verons’, Mercury, 14 May 1895.

9    Courier, 6 May 1897: 5.

10    This section draws gratefully on Lynne Stevenson, ‘The Coolgardie International Exhibition, 1899’, Celebrations in Western Australian History (Studies in WA History), vol. 10, April 1989.

11    Coolgardie Miner, 19 September 1898: 4.

12    Kalgoorlie Miner, 22 March 1899: 5.



Coolgardie Miner, 19 September 1898, Coolgardie Miner 3 July 1899.

Courier, 6 May 1897.

Kalgoorlie Miner, 22 March 1899.

Launceston Examiner, Exhibition Supplement’ 26 November 1891, 21 December 1891.

Mercury, 14 May 1895, 16 May 1895.

Sydney Morning Herald, 16 March 1850.


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Cite this chapter as: Young, Linda. 2008. ‘“How like England we can be”: The Australian international exhibitions in the nineteenth century’. 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. 12.1–12.19.

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