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Louis Lawrence Smith (1830–1910) was an entrepreneurial doctor, promoter and maverick politician in late nineteenth-century Melbourne. Although not prominent in the development of ‘high’ cultural institutions such as the museum and the library he was influential in the public and exhibition culture that did develop, and with the Exhibition Building. Smith helped enliven and, ultimately, to institutionalise ‘the exhibitionary complex’, which was already so much a part of globalising and Imperial culture. The origins of this were both traditional and evolving, and more commercial and popular than has been recognised. Smith’s role and the values he represented have been overlooked in a period when museums were reaching out to the public.

Exhibitions were a phenomenon of the Victorian age. National and international exhibitions spawned new institutions: art, history, natural science and technological museums and with them new disciplines of evolving media – dioramas and panoramas – and commercial expressions ranging from the exhibitions themselves to arcades and department stores. The panoply of activities and institutions has been summed up by Tony Bennett (1988) in the phrase, ‘the exhibitionary complex’. This was a dynamic and embracing phenomenon, absorbing and producing new and different forms of knowledge and relationships of power characteristic of an expanding and modernising capitalist and imperialist social order (73–102).1 Its template was the London Exhibition of 1851 – its lasting image, Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace building of iron and glass, was a symbol of both the achievements and the potential of a new industrial, imperial and scientific order. But the exhibitionary complex was an evolving show – one that was partly traditional, partly social reformist, partly educative, certainly hegemonic, growingly commercial and indulgent, opening up to developments and innovations in mass popular culture and only giving way to the advance of popular and cinematic mass media in the twentieth century. Rooted in and expressive of the progressive movements of the nineteenth century, its characteristic forms – especially the international exhibition – were harbingers of modernity and progress. Many of these movements – like imperialism and racism – no longer seem so progressive. But others we still profess with enthusiasm, or have absorbed to the point where we no longer notice their distinctiveness – like public education, free trade, a greater tolerance of popular culture and respect for the public, an obsession with applications of science and technology, and delight in the leisure and consumer economy.

When it held its first exhibition in 1854, Melbourne was still a backwater, a frontier settlement only recently enlivened by an influx of gold-seeking immigrants. But its adventurous new arrivals soon settled down and they rewarded themselves with leisure, which they used as they chose. With the instant wealth of the gold rush years came amusements. Of a traditional and popular kind, these gathered in and around the infant colonial metropolis: circuses, waxworks, balls, theatrical entertainments, sporting contests and pleasure gardens. Among the most spectacular was Cremorne Gardens, modelled on London’s Vauxhall and Cremorne amusement parks and located on the north bank of the Yarra river (Serle 1963, 364). Here, from 1853, could be found sideshows and strange animals, dancing and fireworks, balloon ascents, historical tableaux and displays. Its entrepreneur, from 1856, was the actor and theatre manager George Coppin, later a notable politician and philanthropist. Under him the displays grew: a large theatre, a shooting gallery, a bowling saloon and special displays with pyrotechnics – the Siege of Sebastopol from the Crimean War or Vesuvius erupting.2 Here was a new order of public entertainment. Proponents of ‘rational recreation’ had argued previously for leisure activities with a higher moral and intellectual purpose to counter the raw and rough elements in colonial life, and they condemned traditional amusements and pastimes as promoting drunkenness and immorality (Waterhouse 1990). Early institutions of ‘improvement’ had included the Melbourne Mechanics Institute from 1839 – later, from 1873, the Athenaeum – and schools of arts and mechanics institutes typically containing libraries and a reading room were replicated in the suburbs and provincial centres.3 Gold and the influx of people had sparked development in this as in virtually every other sphere of activity. So it was with public entertainments as well.

In An Empire on Display, Peter Hoffenberg (2001) tells us that the Colony of Victoria was a contributor to an emerging network of imperial exchange that revolved around international and intercolonial exhibitions. Exhibitions were another instance of Geoffrey Serle’s (1963) observation of how ‘the cultural habits and institutions of Britain were transplanted, and a worthy replica of the cultural life of an English provincial city was formed’ (353). But colonial Victorians’ adoption of this enthusiasm was more than a passive reflex. Contemporary historian Henry Gyles Turner (1904) considered the exhibition mania an ‘infection’ caught early with Victoria’s first display in 1854 conducted ‘out of the very wantonness of her wealth’, for ‘she had no manufactures to show, and little produce beyond the golden ore and the golden fleece’ (220). This first ‘official’ exhibition was contemporaneous with the formation of other key institutions: the public library, the museum, the university and the parliament. Like them, it was part of international movements. Exhibitions held in Melbourne in 1854, 1861, 1866, 1872 and 1875 were staged preliminary to participation in grand international events in Europe and the United States. They are often overlooked as incidental prehistory to the Melbourne International Exhibition of 1880–81 and the Centennial International Exhibition of 1888–89. In turn, these two grand events have been depicted almost to the exclusion of all others as powerful hubristic expressions of the city’s growth and prosperity in its boom decade, as a typically excessive prelude to the economic collapse and depression of the 1890s.4 The exhibition deserves wider scrutiny as an institution in its own right and as a Victorian period as well as a colonial Victorian institution. Hoffenberg’s study offers a useful point of departure. Other interpretations have suggested as much, that it encouraged an emerging nationalism and internationalism, that it was a prelude to Federation, and expressive of those same broad forces of education and social control scholars have argued characterised the role of exhibitions in Britain and elsewhere.5

Melbourne had no equivalent of London’s South Kensington complex. This was the mix of exhibitions and museum institutions that, from 1857, succeeded the ‘great’ exhibition of 1851 and which reflected the trend and progressive beliefs of the movement’s patron, the Queen’s consort, Prince Albert; also its leading administrative figure and ideologue, Sir Henry Cole. These were to be institutions devoted to the four sections of the late exhibition – raw materials, machinery, manufactures and fine arts – and including a library, lecture and meeting rooms as well as exhibition space.6 Their understanding was that the museum as an institution could have democratic social value – both in educating the masses and in providing them with improving entertainment. At the heart of Albert’s vision was ‘a notion of useful learning, whether in the physical sciences, engineering, manufacturing or the arts’. In Cole’s conception, the museum was ‘never just a container’ but ‘an educational force that deployed material collections’. South Kensington, according to Bennett (1988), ‘marked a significant turning point in the development of British museum policy in clearly enunciating the principles of the modern museum conceived as an instrument of public education’ and ‘the most significant shift in the State’s attitude towards museums’ (344). This utilitarian vision of learning and knowledge, which included science and technology, and the institutions themselves, attracted interest from far-flung outposts of Empire, including Victoria.7 But neither these models, nor the lessons derived from them, were readily, easily or quickly absorbed.

In Victoria the democratic trend was driven by material wellbeing, which was the product of increased population, gold dug out of the ground and a shortage of labour. The new democracy of everyday life proved disturbing to some. Victoria’s new institutions – the library, the national museum and the university – were public in orientation and improving in their social purpose but they retained an elite and exclusivist character.8 Historians David Goodman (1990) and Paul Fox (1988) have written about how the Museum and the State Library were conceived and maintained to promote educational, cultural and scientific standards in a colonial environment degraded by entertainments of doubtful value. The library was to be free but ‘for the education of the mind, not for entertainment’. Its figurehead, Judge Redmond Barry, was horrified to discover in England in 1862 patrons of public libraries there reading ‘cheap novels’. Both he and his librarian, Augustus Tulk, were determined this should not be encouraged in Melbourne.9 The National Museum was to be no circus entertainment either. In 1856 its newly established collections were removed to the University of Melbourne – hijacked from such serendipitous passing trade and potential for amusement as a central city location afforded; also, by its director Professor Frederick McCoy’s high science. They were not returned from their academic enclave at Carlton until after his death in 1899.10 McCoy was already a notable figure in natural history and paleontology when, aged 37, he was appointed one of the university’s first professors in 1854.11 McCoy’s Museum – for he usurped total control of it – was open to the public. But in its natural history conceptions, especially, it was a museum that was already ‘old’: advancing science with scholarship, admittedly, but ‘neo-classical’ rather than modern, evincing a contrast in ideal museum types that Cole himself lived with – between the staid and neglected glories of the British Museum and the innovations of South Kensington.12 Victoria, of course, had neither fully realised in the nineteenth century. While McCoy built a great collection his museum was not a popular institution. He offered a spare and austere learning experience in a location otherwise given over to high pedagogy. In the 1860s and 70s, as Kathleen Fennessy has observed, the colonial state ‘established public institutions and subsidised private initiatives to provide people with knowledge, skills and values considered necessary for progress in an industrialising democratic society’.13 Individual self-improvement, civic values and the colony’s economic growth were all imperatives. But the colonial state’s first museum displays – involving, as they did, ‘a systematic body of knowledge and skills promulgated in a systematic way to specified audiences’ – were ‘hard’ rather than ‘soft’, which meant teaching ‘by example rather than pedagogy; by entertainment rather than by disciplined schooling; and by subtlety and encouragement’.14 People still visited – an average of 53,000 a year in the 1860s and double this by the end of the century, but there might have been more. Many of these were practical types attracted by the mining and geological exhibits.15

The Melbourne exhibitions, by contrast, attracted more people. But they were intermittent and short-lived. One of the more substantial, the ‘third Melbourne exhibition’ – the 1866 Intercolonial Exhibition – ran for 105 days and evenings and it attracted an astonishing 263,634 visitors before its displays were sent on to the 1867 Paris Exhibition. It had a special grant of the Victorian parliament, the cooperation of the other Australian colonies and the enthusiasm of its organisers, exhibitors and the public. The colonies of the South Pacific with New Zealand, New Caledonia, Mauritius and ‘Netherlands-India’ (later the Dutch East Indies) participated, giving it a wider than merely ‘Australian’ interest. Its originators were a small group of executive commissioners who were among ‘the most active and influential public figures in their colonies’ (Hoffenberg 2001, 42). The great exhibitions of the 1880s would involve hundreds of prominent citizens but the Victorians Peter Hoffenberg (2001) includes among his ‘exhibition wallahs’ are an exemplary few. They include Judge Redmond Barry, the wine-loving Catholic priest and polymath, Joseph Bleasdale, the industrial chemist and parliamentarian, Joseph Bosisto, the architect, John George Knight, and the peripatetic journalist, politician and administrator, George Collins Levey. This chapter proposes another, Louis Lawrence Smith (1830–1910), suggesting him as both a transitional and successional figure.

Although he was not instrumental in the organisation or execution of the early, or even the later international exhibitions, Louis Smith personified a trend to a more democratic, inclusive and, above all, popular exhibition culture in Melbourne. His own personal journey exemplified this: from showman, suspected charlatan and society outsider, to impresario, colonial politician, exhibition patron and, eventually, respectability. A contemporary and friend of George Coppin’s, Smith had his own theatrical and entrepreneurial involvements. Even among gold generation migrants he had a more colourful international past than most. London-born, in 1830, he was the son of the theatrical entrepreneur Edward Tyrell Smith and his French-born wife Magdalena Nannette (nee Gengoult). ET Smith was an important London figure who in his prime held the leases of Covent Garden and Drury Lane theatres, Cremorne Gardens, Chelsea, and other places of entertainment. But he became estranged from his wife and son soon after Louis was born.16 Mrs Smith survived uneasily on her own resources as a French woman and shopkeeper in London where the young man grew up and was educated. Later, Louis Smith studied medicine in London and Paris, worked as a commercial traveller and acted in London and provincial theatres. In Paris he absorbed Bohemian style and political radicalism – he claimed to have been at the barricades with the Republicans in the revolution of 1848 and described himself as ‘a Liberal of the most pronounced type’.17 This did not, however, inhibit an acquisitive or individualistic nature. Quite early he seized the opportunities inherent in the public practice of his profession. About the time he qualified as a medical practitioner, in London in 1852, Smith had worked with Dr RJ Culverwell, whose practice embraced sexual matters and venereal disease. Culverwell was also the proprietor of an anatomical museum. Smith claimed him as a mentor and retained a lifelong interest in displays, advertising and exhibitions and their propensity to shape public attitudes and to attract custom.18

With limited opportunities available to him in Britain, Louis Smith travelled to Australia as a ship’s surgeon, arriving in Melbourne in December 1852. After a short and unsuccessful stint on the goldfields, he set up as a chemist and doctor in Bourke Street East. This was in the heart of Melbourne’s entertainment precinct with the red-light district not far away in the lanes off Bourke and Lonsdale Streets and the new suburbs of Collingwood and Richmond nearby, all providing a ready source of anxious patients. Smith acquired a reputation as a ‘charitable’ doctor, undertaking work for no fee among ‘the unfortunate demi-mondes’.19 But in other respects he calculated to make a great deal of money and to return home a rich man. He did not return home – at least not on a permanent basis – but he became rich. Smith spent ever-increasing sums advertising his practice, specialist services and mail-order pills, and incurred the enmity and the jealousy of Melbourne’s medical establishment.20 Not at all deterred, he continued to seek out by popular means and advertisement ‘cases … arising from errors and yielding to the passions’.21 Smith claimed that as a qualified medical man he rescued people from quacks and that his Vegetable Pills were not a charlatan remedy.22 Accused of not being fully qualified, with only a Licentiate of the London Society of Apothecaries, he pointed out, rightly, that this was a fully acceptable qualification.23 His notoriety reached a height in 1858 when he was charged with procuring an abortion. This and other accusations proved groundless. Smith was left with his wealthy practice but a tarnished reputation.

Louis Smith became a public figure when he entered parliament in 1859. In the days before payment of members he was a wealthy man who espoused the popular cause. Smith relied on his money and talent for publicity, developing the style of a maverick. He had flair and ideas, and contributed usefully in debate and committee in the parliament. But he undermined himself by his failure to attach himself permanently to any party or group and he faced enduring opposition from the medical establishment and its friends. Smith’s interests took a new turn in 1862 when he established his ‘Polytechnic Institute’ in a large Corinthian building erected next to his new medical premises on the south side of Bourke Street East. This recalled displays that had long enjoyed currency in London, in particular those of the ‘National Gallery of Practical Science’ – ‘blending instruction with amusement’ – ‘the Adelaide Gallery’ and its rival ‘the Polytechnic Institute’, from which Smith’s institution took its name.24 ‘A kind of Modernized Society of Arts’ (Altick 1978, 382), the figurehead sponsor of the London Polytechnic was Sir George Cayley, a social reformer with scientific interests. Capital was provided by a builder named Nurse, with a Professor Bachhoffner, ‘principal of the department of natural and experimental philosophy’. For a shilling the visitor could examine ‘a bewildering array of objects’, including curiosities, in a galleried ‘great hall’ at 309 Regent Street (Altick 1978, 382). Newsworthy topics provided subjects for lectures and demonstrations of ‘scientific principles’. Children were an important market and Smith himself could have been taken by his mother as a child. He would certainly have visited on his own account in his youth. The London Exhibition of 1851 catered to the same market and was simply ‘the Polytechnic raised to an exponential power’, according to Richard Altick (1978). Better organisation, the enhanced scientific displays, together with social respectability, meant that the Polytechnic struggled to survive in the new exhibition culture of the post-Crystal Palace era. An attempt was made to sell it in March 1860, with the only bidder ET Smith – sometime owner of prominent theatres and London entertainments and father of LL Smith. His offer of £3100 was well below the reserve fixed price. It was finally purchased in 1862 by the philanthropist Quintin Hogg and turned famously in the direction of technical education.


Figure 1. Louis Lawrence Smith ‘the little doctor’, exhibition entrepreneur, politician and man about town portrayed in typically dapper dress in Life (Melbourne) 13 November 1890.
(Courtesy of State Library of Victoria)

Louis Smith’s Melbourne Polytechnic of 1862 used the same utilitarian rhetoric of science and side dishes of lectures, performances and exhibits calculated to entertain and amuse. Following on from the Melbourne 1862 exhibition, the closure of Cremorne Gardens and the isolation and public disfavour of the National Museum, Smith read the wind and saw a need for a permanent and popular institution. The aim of the Royal Polytechnic Institute and Museum of Natural History and Science, which he announced in December 1862, was ‘to give his fellow-colonists a rational amusement … in an entertaining and instructive manner.’25 Smith prefaced his catalogue of exhibits with a quote from the astronomer Sir TW Herschel: ‘To the Natural Philosopher there is no natural object that is unimportant or trifling; from the least of nature’s works he may learn the greatest lesson’ (Catalogue of the Royal Polytechnic Institute … 1862). The formal exhibits were divided into three parts: Scientific and Philosophic; Natural History and Art; and the Museum of Anatomy and Physiology.26 The catalogue pointed to both the Institute’s improving purpose and its sponsor’s motives: ‘everything … contained within the institute has been executed and manufactured or gathered in the colony, and a building erected to contain them of no mean order’. Smith styled himself ‘the proprietor’ and ‘thoroughly independent’ from the Polytechnic ‘as a means of pecuniary gain’. He promised also ‘if the public come up to his expectation’ to erect a large lecture hall at the rear, surpassing anything in Melbourne ‘or even in London’ and to supplement the bird and animal exhibits – all indigenous to the colony – with examples from neighbouring colonies and those of the Polynesian group.27

The Governor, Sir Henry Barkly, opened the Institute, reflecting the newly rich immigrant entrepreneur’s desire to court respectability but also the tradition of patronage its London predecessors had enjoyed. Exhibits were calculated for effect and to arouse curiosity. The educative and technological benefits of science were invoked. Exhibits ranged from shells and medals to mineralogical specimens, to machinery, waxen anatomical models and magic lantern slides of the cities of the world. Advertisements promised lectures on subjects ranging from electricity to steam engines to the respiratory system in a ‘popular manner, blending instruction with amusement, in a style adapted to mixed audiences’. A magician delighted audiences with feats of legerdemain, should the static exhibits cause the public interest to flag. Children and mixed audiences were catered for with the promise made that the ‘developed faculties’ of the public generally would be taxed also.28 An anatomical museum and displays were the work of the medical wax modeller, Maximilian Kreitmeyer, also a lecturer whom Smith had possibly known since his student days in London. These encouraged patients to come to him for treatment, or to write to him – with a one pound fee attached for his reply. Proximity to Smith’s consulting rooms was no accident either. Male patients were asked to wait here before seeing him. Public disapproval of the more graphic displays and high admission prices brought about the failure of Smith’s Polytechnic.29 By September 1864, the Age reported ‘nothing remains of the old institute, with its curious and scientific specimens’.30 But there was regret at its passing also. The literary periodical, The Magpie, begged for ‘some talented and enterprising individual [who] would keep the hall open, as a permanent place of amusement, a real Polytechnic Institute being much wanted in this city, as there is, with the exception of the University Museum, no place in Melbourne where amusement and instruction are agreeably combined.’31 The Polytechnic became a theatre while the anatomical museum remained attached to Smith’s Bourke Street rooms. Restricted to adults, its exhibits dealt openly and controversially with reproduction and the effects of venereal disease until 1869 when it, too, was closed.32 In Smith’s later recollection the Royal Polytechnic Institution had not been a success but it had ‘provided the youth of the colony with instructive entertainment’.33

Smith’s public career suffered a hiatus during the second half of the 1860s when he was out of parliament, although a frequent contestant. He was the originator of the free banquet planned to be held on the occasion of Queen Victoria’s second son, Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh’s visit in 1867. Following English tradition, this feeding of the city’s ‘deserving poor’ was to be graced by the presence of royalty. Unfortunately, the day in November 1867, was hot and the Prince’s arrival at the Richmond Paddock venue was delayed. By early afternoon the impatient crowd had taken matters into their own hands. A melee ensued and the gracious moment was lost.34 In 1871 Smith won the inner-suburban working class seat of Richmond, but in 1874 was defeated. He regained Richmond in May 1877, as a supporter of Graham Berry and the Liberal cause as Victorian politics entered one of its most turbulent eras. Smith wanted to be Postmaster-General but Berry, whose political career Smith had encouraged, had no place for him in his ministry. Smith was not included in the commission for the Paris Exposition of 1878 or its planning for the Melbourne International Exhibition. He had by this time moved to a palatial residence in the more sedate environs of Collins Street East opposite the Melbourne Club, where he cultivated the lifestyle of a wealthy bohemian and continued to dabble in business and politics. Constitutional crisis in the form of a drawn out deadlock between the two houses of parliament, followed by a failed appeal to Britain to intercede, saw support for Berry erode. In December 1880 – while the international exhibition was still on – Smith confronted his former leader in the parliament with a no confidence motion. In Smith’s view, Berry was a ‘traitor to the people’ who, in pursuit of political advantage and love of office, had vacillated in prosecuting the cause of reform. The motion was defeated but Smith set up victory for another disaffected Berryite, Sir Bryan O’Loghlen, who, in July 1881, brought the government down. O’Loghlen then formed a composite ministry giving Smith the title of Minister without Portfolio. Smith’s appointment to the seven-member Exhibition Trust, charged with the responsibility of the great complex following the closure of the International Exhibition in 1881, and his emergent role in international exhibitions was the direct result of his newly acquired political influence.

Following the closure of the International Exhibition in September 1881, the exhibition movement had no obvious leader or patron, or administrative or executive heir apparent. The city had an exhibition building but with no purpose. The late exhibition secretary, George Levey, was considered too closely allied with the previous regime. Exhibition notables of an earlier generation had either left the colony, died, retired or been snubbed. John George Knight, the organiser of the 1861 and 1866 exhibitions, and Victoria’s Secretary at London 1862 and Sydney 1873, had become a colonial administrator at Port Darwin.35 The apostle of technical education, Samuel Henry Bindon, who had secured government support for the 1866 exhibition, was a victim of Berry’s 1878 ‘Black Wednesday’ dismissal of senior public servants and died in 1879.36 Joseph Bleasdale, Catholic prelate, analytical chemist, and polymath advocate of colonial wines and new industries, had become disappointed and shipped off to another wine-growing country, California, to try his luck there.37 Judge Redmond Barry, who had been involved in every Melbourne exhibition up to and including 1875, had signed off with the Centennial Exhibition at Philadelphia in 1876 his last grand effort.38 He died in November 1880, during the Melbourne International Exhibition. Meanwhile Louis Smith developed an interest in the state collections, notably those of the Herbarium, urging their public display. He was vocal on the subject in the Parliament, even defending his former leader, Graham Berry’s government purchase at the late exhibition of Italian statuary for public display. In Smith’s view ‘it was desirable to cultivate … a taste for the beaux arts. Experience showed that the public exhibition in Europe of works of the great masters had an important educational influence’.39

The Age newspaper bemoaned Berry’s failure to give direction or to appoint managers for the exhibition complex while in office. His successor, O’Loghlen, appointed the wealthy merchant politician and respected reformer, JG Francis, Chairman of the Exhibition Trustees. But Francis was in failing health and resigned. He was succeeded by the businessman plutocrat, James McBain, who had surprised everyone by accepting a ministerial position with the O’Loghlen government, becoming its voice in ‘the upper house’ of parliament, the Legislative Council. He was a genial and ‘clubbable’ old Tory, a Scottish-born pillar of the Melbourne establishment and an unlikely source of visionary direction or executive effort.40 The exhibition building might have been the venue for the Natural History Museum, McCoy’s preserve at the university, about which a stalemate had long existed. It was offered to the Technological Museum, which had been formed out of the Public Library in 1870. These propositions were rejected. By April 1882, the Exhibition Trustees were seeking development funds. The Eastern Annexe, they argued, should be given over to a technological museum and mechanical workshop. Here might be located an exhibition of models, plans and patent machinery, the latest improvements in the extraction of gold and an exhibition of engineering tools and machinery used in manufacturing processes. The Western Annexe should be devoted to the products of the soil, with botanical specimens, samples of native grasses and soils, and implements used in food production. Lectures would be given on subjects related to farming, grazing, wine and oil growing, and information provided on dealing with pests of the land. The galleries in the great hall should be reserved for a colonial museum, including an art gallery, for artists from all over the world, with space for local artists for study and exhibition. Exhibits of wines, beer, spirits, cordials and mineral waters could be located in the cellars – as they had been in the late exhibition – the whole under bonded store supervision. An aquarium would be an added attraction. With sea water obtainable three miles away this could be conveyed by pipes with the excess used for watering the streets. Louis Smith and his fellow trustee and parliamentarian, George Woods, claimed that as well as being ‘highly remunerative’ this would be ‘a source of great attraction’. The active management of such an institution would be placed in the hands of a board of scientists.41

A report was put to the government recommending options on the building’s future. A majority of trustees held it should be a museum with technological collections. But in a special missive Louis Smith went further, arguing the building should continue to be used for the purpose it was built, ‘viz., for exhibition and recreation as well as for instructive purposes’. The machinery annexes, he suggested, should be used for the display of machines and models from the Patents Office, providing, in effect, an Intercolonial Technological Museum. A portion could be given over to the collections of his friend, the Government Botanist, Baron von Mueller and of the resources of Victoria generally. But his main challenge was to suggest to his fellow trustees that ‘the building can be made self-supporting, and, in fact, bring in a surplus revenue, and yet fulfil its obligations to the State’. Portions should be let to exhibitors to make it a ‘world emporium’, the organ and concert hall of the western nave and the space under the great dome, to be used for ‘amusements, such as concerts and balls, bazaars, flower shows, wool fairs, etc’, which would command a price of admission. Here would be ‘a grand permanent national exhibition of the arts, manufactures, and inventions of all nations … an index or compendium to which the importer, the merchant, the tradesman, the artisan, and the inventor could refer.’ Smith envisaged a tourist trade, as ‘neighbouring colonists, whether engaged in trade or not, would never leave our city without paying it at least one visit’, the exhibition providing both ‘pleasure’ and ‘instruction’. A digest of summary recommendations was then put to two scientific men. One was the Government Astronomer, Robert Ellery, formerly chairman of judges at the international exhibition, long-serving president of the local branch of the Royal Society and a trustee of the gallery, the public library and the museum.42 The other was the industrial chemist and public servant, Cosmo Newbery, who was scientific superintendent of the Technological Museum.43 Together they endorsed or qualified the trustees’ recommendations, approving generally the idea of a museum and technological schools, with the museum ‘on the plan of that established at South Kensington’ (Dunstan 1996).

With their ministerial influence McBain and Smith were well placed to see these recommendations implemented by the government. In addition to helping formulate policy for the exhibition, Smith was responsible for Victoria’s contribution to the 1882 Bordeaux and 1883 Amsterdam exhibitions. Bordeaux was an international exhibition of wines. Smith’s involvement arose out of a request from his leader, O’Loghlen, and his own self-promoted political leadership of the Victorian wine industry. He had been a successful exhibitor of wine at the Melbourne International Exhibition and he now used his European language, organisational skills and government standing to good effect.44 Wine occupied a special place on the international exhibition circuit and Smith conceived a great international future for the Victorian industry owing to the devastation of Europe’s vineyards by Grape Phylloxera.45 A special effort was made at Bordeaux, which, according to Smith, resulted in ‘one of the grandest successes. We beat Spain, Portugal, Sicily, Germany; in fact, all the wines of the world which competed against us [not, however, France] and also the neighbouring colonies – older wine-producers than ourselves by two to one.’46

In 1883 Smith commissioned George Levey to brave ‘foul smelling and sewerless Amsterdam’ and to register yet another ‘great success … in the matter of diplomas and gold medals … [which] aroused the jealousy of New South Wales’.47 In a surprisingly short time exhibitions had become Louis Smith’s responsibility. But following an election, that saw the triumph of neither Liberals nor Conservatives, his political power disappeared. A long-awaited coalition of moderate elements swept the unpopular O’Loghlen government away, and with it whatever insider influence trustees Smith and McBain wielded. Smith lost his seat of Richmond.

In June 1883, while McBain was overseas, Smith led a deputation as acting Chairman of the Exhibition Trustees to Chief Secretary Berry seeking the implementation of the trustees’ recommendations. Confronting his old leader, who he had helped bring down only two years before, cap-in-hand must have been a chastening experience even for someone as thick-skinned as Smith. No doubt, he and his colleagues felt pressured to develop their thoughts in line with the man who was the political ‘father’ of the exhibition. Smith reported the trustees in favour of displays of an improving and educational character. They had suggested locating the Technological Museum at the Exhibition Building but its trustees had rejected this. This did not rule out the display of other government collections: the government botanical collection, the models from the patent office, and the collection of the Mines Department. The main building would still be free for the purpose of international exhibitions and others of a temporary character, which Berry insisted upon. Berry’s view was that the building was intended for the display of the products of human industry but it could be put to other educational and improving purposes. Otherwise, it ought to be free to the public and ‘as popular as possible’. He was keen on machinery in motion and he agreed that an aquarium would be a good thing.48

When James McBain returned from Amsterdam early in 1884 Louis Smith refused to vacate the chair. Smith was supported by his fellow trustees, including the influential, practically minded City Councillor and former Mayor, Thomas O’Grady. Possibly, they considered themselves secure – Berry’s influence in the government not being total – and that McBain had lost their support or that Smith had earned the leading role. McBain’s letter of resignation followed soon afterwards. With time, energy and wealth at his disposal, and support from James Sherrard, the trustees’ secretary, Louis Smith moved effortlessly into the role of Executive Chairman of the Exhibition Trustees. As a Collins Street resident, the great building on the edge of the city was virtually in his backyard. Berry did not overturn the trustees’ decision but he denied Smith the opportunity to represent Victoria officially at the Calcutta International Exhibition of 1883–84 and at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London in 1886, which Smith attended anyway.49

Berry’s invitation to be ‘as popular as possible’ endorsed a direction already taken. Among the first ‘events’ under the new management of the trustees had been that staged in February 1882 by Smith’s old friend, the theatrical entrepreneur George Coppin. This was an ‘Old English Fair’, a standard recycled from Cremorne Gardens days but now adapted with stalls for the sale of wares and sideshows, a ‘Richardsons theatre’, a circus, performers of legerdemain, living marionettes, Punch and Judy shows, performing animals, dwarfs and other displays. It was a far cry from the scientific and industrial displays that Smith and his trustees had promised but it filled the building and turned a ready penny.50 The concert hall and great organ in the western nave was made a venue for promenade concerts. This type of concert – where people walked while music played – had its origins in the Crystal Palace after the close of the London Exhibition in 1851. Two thousand people attended the first of these held on 13 August 1881, with a benefit for the widow and children of the late Melbourne author, Marcus Clarke. A ‘Melbourne Musical Festival’ after the manner of the great festivals at Birmingham, Leeds and other English cities was held in December 1882 with Handel’s Messiah and Israel in Egypt and a performance of Beethoven’s Choral symphony among the featured attractions.51 An ‘international fair’ conducted on Easter Monday, 1883, with stalls representing the courts of different nations, was a fundraiser to help build the Catholic cathedral, St Patrick’s. Similar events in 1885 and 1890 set an example for charitable, community and religious groups as ‘the exhibition’ assumed a permanent character. A ‘Chinese Pageant’ was part of the ‘bazaar’ organised to aid the Women’s Hospital in May 1886. This saw the city’s stigmatised and outcast Chinese community’s exoticism celebrated. July 1883 saw the Victorian Poultry and Dog Society’s show, which became an annual event. An ‘Intercolonial Wine, Grain and Fruits Exhibition’ modelled on the Bordeaux exhibition was held over two weeks in March 1884, with Smith himself lecturing on the manufacture of champagne. The fiftieth anniversary of Victorian settlement was celebrated from November 1884 to January 1885 with a ‘Jubilee Exhibition for Business and Pleasure’. John Hanlon Knipe, the promoter, had been one of the original manufacturer-advocates of an Exhibition Building to Berry in 1877.52 He built a temporary theatre, ‘the Histrionic Court’, where Alfred Silvester as ‘the Fakir of Oulu’ performed magic tricks. Other entertainments included ‘an Old London Street’ with inhabitants in period dress and an Aboriginal Natives Court with terracotta statues of the original inhabitants in a camp in a fern valley on the imagined site of the Melbourne Post Office. Local theatre owners complained of unfair competition. What had been promoted as ‘an exhibition of the arts and sciences’ was ‘really a variety show’, they claimed.53

Occasional shows had kept ‘intermittent life’ in the building following the closure of the International Exhibition, but until the aquarium opened on the evening of 24 February 1885 there was no permanent display. These were popular in English seaside towns and had been a feature of international exhibitions elsewhere. Smith claimed it would be ‘a great source of amusement and instruction’. Ellery and Newbery were again advisers but this time special homage was paid to Professor Frederick McCoy – after all, he was the natural history expert and the expert on fish. Enlisting men of science was not just politically wise, it promised a more successful outcome. A special advisory committee included McCoy, Alderman O’Grady and the consulting engineer R Shakespear. A decision was taken to build north of the Garden Court and to construct two tanks, one for salt water and one for fresh water. The aquarium was situated in the north-eastern annexe facing Nicholson Street and connected to the great hall by a corridor. At the opening in 1885, Smith – immaculately dressed in top hat, tails and white gloves – led a gathering of distinguished citizens through to a large darkened viewing space with an overhanging roof. The uneven ‘water-worn’ appearance of undressed ‘Spanish cork’ gave the walls a grotto-like effect, with the edges of each individual glass display tank covered with either mirrors or cork from ceiling to floor. Mirrors strategically placed in the darkened cave reflected either the gas or natural light to illuminate the fish. The Argus newspaper likened the variety of living, moving creatures to the animals of the zoo – the shark swimming constantly backwards and forwards was ‘a tiger in the jungle’. Of particular interest were the oddities: the boarfish and the porcupine fish; the sea lions and sea elephants in their large enclosure set with a waterfall cavern retreat, that when fully grown would be 20 to 30 feet in length. Upstairs, stuffed birds lent by the Naturalists Club included birds of paradise from New Guinea. There was a collection of shells, corals and fossils – all part of the trustees’ ‘Economic and Technological Collection’. A collection of moths and beetles was supplied by the Government Entomologist, Charles French, and specimens of wood from the Government Botanist, Ferdinand von Mueller, and a collection of minerals. Adjoining the aquarium on the eastern side was a Fisheries Court, consisting of casts, coloured drawings and stuffed specimens of fish together with all manner of shells, fossils, sponges and seaweeds – giant clams from Queensland. Also housed in the Fisheries Court were instruments for catching creatures of the deep: whaling guns and bolts; harpoons; crayfish traps; and trawling appliances. Edible fish were shown preserved (salted, smoked and dried), along with edible birds’ nests, beche-de-mer, dried cuttlefish and ‘eastern delicacies’. In a separate room there was an ethnological collection and ‘a tableau fixe, representing a scene from the early days of the diggings’ – one of the first historical displays, with further efforts promised to collect ‘memorials’ of early Melbourne.

The aquarium was open to the public from 11 am to 5 pm every day with admission one shilling for adults and sixpence for children. By March 1885 steadily increasing attendances were reported, with between seven and eight hundred people on a good evening. In the 12 months to June 1886 over 60,000 people paid for admission. This encouraged Smith and his trustees to expand, with a large show tank 60 feet long and 12 feet wide, also a tank for amphibians and a hatchery for fish ova. The building containing these additions was made to resemble ‘an immense stalactite cavern’, carrying on the grotto and rockwork theme. Melbourne had, at last, a permanent museum that was both entertaining and instructive. Although containing only ‘the germ’ of a great national collection, the aquarium, according to the Argus, was enough to create ‘a national hunger for something bigger and better’. The invidious comparison was with the National Museum. ‘In the ivy-clothed retreat at the University known as our national museum – the stuffed fish are a standing satire on everything clad in scales, and the specimens preserved in spirits excite but a mild interest. But here in the aquarium are the object lessons of the natural history of the sea, as they move in their own element.’54 Smith and his trustees gave way; or rather their work was incorporated into the Centennial International Exhibition of 1888–89. Visitors to the aquarium were charged an additional sixpence (three pence for children) for admission because it did not belong to the exhibition proper. Smith was not a Commissioner of the Centennial Exhibition but he was active on several committees. By now, he was back in parliament, from 1886 to 1894, as the member for Mornington, which maritime district was a source of livestock for displays. Undoubtedly, the trustees’ example, and that of the aquarium, gave Victoria’s political leaders confidence in prosecuting the Centennial Exhibition in the first place. Additional displays and entertainments, such as the Switchback railway that proved so important as revenue-earners, and in maintaining the public attention when the exhibition began to flag in the final months, may not have been so actively prosecuted in the absence of the aquarium’s commercial example, resulting in even greater losses than occurred. The aquarium survived the 1888–89 Centennial Exhibition. It continued as a popular Melbourne institution until it was destroyed by fire in 1953.

Smith and his trustees retained many of the exhibits and displays left over from the Centennial Exhibition. By 1892 he was reporting the creation of ‘a permanent Picture Gallery, Museum, and School of Arts and Industries’, lauded as a veritable ‘Victorian “South Kensington”’. This discharged the trustees’ responsibility to display examples of ‘the products and industries’ of Victoria. The incorporated ‘museums’ were ‘Ethnological, Anthropological, Mineralogical, Conchological, Entomological [with] Costumes and Weapons of War of Ancient and Modern Nations’. Admission ‘to the Whole Collection, 1s; Children, 6d’.55 In his element as promoter, showman and impresario, Louis Smith ‘talked up’ new exhibits, such as those building stones and timbers provided by the Victorian Department of Mines or art studies from the South Kensington School of Arts (later the Victorian and Albert Museum), specimens relating to entomology, zoology and economic botany and armaments, including Aboriginal weapons. The services of the government entomologist were again brought to bear with a display of Australian snakes (an ever-popular subject) and a display of the armour of the notorious Kelly Gang of outlaws, models of St Peter’s basilica in Rome, Sydney Harbour, the Victorian Houses of Parliament (when completed), and John Hennings’ Cyclorama of Early Melbourne.56

Smith’s reward for persistence and achievement was his appointment to head the Victorian commission to the opening of the Imperial Institute in London in 1893. This initiative of the Prince of Wales – commenced in 1887, the year of Queen’s jubilee – was to create a permanent museum or exhibition centre for Imperial displays relating to the Empire, and typically products of agriculture, commerce and industry. A large purpose-built structure resulted.57 The indefatigable Smith undertook the work of collecting photographs, objects and examples of manufactures. Once again, he drew on George Levey, now resident in London, as Australian exhibition factotum abroad. A preliminary display in October 1892, at the exhibition building was ‘principally of specimens of wool, grains, wine, minerals, various specimens of woods (polished), fruits, tweeds from Geelong and elsewhere, samples of paper, and a large number of magnificent photographic views of buildings, and scenes of interest in the colony … [with] portraits of our prominent statesmen’. Smith attended the opening in London in May 1893 and stumbled into an unwanted discussion with the press about Victoria’s financial crisis that had worsened suddenly with the failure of its banks.58 Nevertheless, he received a warm welcome on his return, with even his old antagonist, the now knighted Sir Graham Berry, among those present at the Exhibition Building.59 In his report presented to parliament, Smith lectured the government on strategies to advance new industries, recommended the Victorian court be made a permanent display, and again offered his services and those of the exhibition trustees.60 In 1898, nearing 70, he toured country and provincial Victoria urging contributions to the Greater Britain Exhibition due to be held at Earls Court, London, and the Exposition Universelle planned for Paris the following year.61

Louis Smith outlived all those appointed with him to the Exhibition Trust in September 1881. He died on 8 July 1910, aged 80, active to the last. A bust by Sir Bertram Mackennal commissioned by public subscription was erected, fittingly, at the Exhibition Building in 1914. Although the institution would last nearly 100 years, no subsequent chairman of trustees would hold or dominate the office for more than two decades as he had. Few individuals would share the same zeal or commitment, or contribute so forcefully to the shaping of values associated with the institution. When he died Smith was mourned as one of the last links with old Melbourne.62 With the exception of Redmond Barry, whose contribution preceded Smith’s, and was more patrician in character, Smith embodied a popular, more democratic and certainly more commercially astute expression of the values and ideas associated with the exhibitionary complex that shaped Australian public institutions in the latter decades of the nineteenth century.63


1     Also in Boswell and Evans (1999): 332–361; Bennett (1995), esp. ch. 2: 59–88. The author is grateful to Dr Mimi Colligan for her suggestions and comments on an earlier draft of this chapter.

2     See Cannon (1993); Colligan (1994b).

3     See Baragawanath (2000).

4     See for example, Cannon (1966); Davison (2005); Dunstan (1996); Serle (1971), ch. 9: 272–294.

5     See also Davison (1988): 158–177; Orr (2006).

6     See Orr (2006): 270–271; Auerbach (1999): 197. The key institutions were the South Kensington Museum (1857), the Royal Albert Hall (1871), the Natural History Museum (1880), the Imperial College of Science and Technology, and the Victoria and Albert Museum (1909).

7     See Robertson (2004).

8     See Parkinson (2004), ch. 2.

9     See Fox (1988): 22.

10    See Serle (1963): 366; Goodman (1990): 18–34.

11    See Fendley (1974): 134–136.

12    See Alexander (1983): 169.

13    Fennessy (2007): 3.

14    Pearson (1982): 35. For another view of McCoy see Rasmussen et al (2001), esp. ch. 3.

15    See Serle (1963): 366.

16    However, there is evidence of communication between the two men prior to ET Smith’s death in 1877. See Davidson (1994): 1–21; Featherstone (1976): 151–152.

17    ‘Letters to Public Men’. The World. 21 December 1882. LL Smith clipping book in the possession of Mr N and Mrs G Gengoult-Smith, Melbourne.

18    See Fraser (1990): 143–162.

19    ‘Early Melbourne’. Truth. 29 August 1914: 7.

20    The Age, 7 February 1857.

21    Advertisement, McIvor Times and Rodney Advertiser, 11 September 1873.

22    See Fraser (1990): 143–162.

23    ‘Mr LL Smith MLA’, Argus, 18 May 1868.

24    See Victorian Men of the Time (1878): 195.

25    Argus, 20 December 1862.

26    Illustrated Melbourne Post, 20 December 1862.

27    ibid.

28    Argus, 20 December 1862.

29    Colligan (1994a): 52–64 has a full account of the Institute’s anatomical displays and the public and press reaction.

30    The Age, 10 September 1864.

31    The Magpie, 12 January 1866: 3 cited in Colligan (1994a): 60.

32    See Colligan (1994a) and Smith’s advertisement in the McIvor Times and Rodney Advertiser, 11 September 1873.

33    The Tatler, 11 June 1898: 27.

34    See Dunstan (1994): 49–51.

35    See Hoffenberg (2001): 283; O’Neill (1974): 37.

36    See Potts (1969): 163–164.

37    See Grigsby (1969): 183–184.

38    See Galbally (1995): 181.

39    Victorian Parliamentary Debates, 9 June 1881 (36): 2616.

40    See Hone (1974): 127–128.

41    See Dunstan (1996): 149–155.

42    See Gascoigne (1972): 135–137.

43    See Fowler (1974): 331.

44    On Smith’s wine industry involvements see Dunstan (1994).

45    See Hoffenberg (2001): 107–110.

46    The Vigneron, 13 August 1886: 80.

47    The Age supplement, 27 October 1883.

48    See Dunstan (1996), ‘Report of Proceedings of the Exhibition trustees, 30 June 1883, VPRS 827 Public Record Office Victoria’, 154.

49    See Williams (1957): 23.

50    Australasian Sketcher, 25 February 1882.

51    See Dunstan (1996): 160–162.

52    ibid. 25–26.

53    ibid. 163–165.

54    Argus, 24 February 1885; Dunstan (1996): 176–182.

55    Advertisement, Argus, 26 September 1892.

56    See Colligan (2002): 187–196.

57    See Survey of London … 1975: xi–xx.

58    British Australasian, 24 August 1893: 1011.

59    British Australasian, 5 October 1893: 1172; Argus, 17 August 1893.

60    See ‘Report from the Honourable LL Smith, MP … 1893’

61    Bendigo Advertiser, 12 September 1898; Rutherglen Sun, 22 November 1898.

62    The Age, 9 & 11 July 1910; Truth (Melbourne), 22 & 29 August 1914.

63    See Dunstan (1996): 156–159.



The Age, 7 February 1857; 10 September 1864; 27 October 1883; 9 July 1910; 11 July 1910.

Argus, 20 December 1862; 18 May 1868; 24 February 1885; 26 September 1892; 17 August 1893.

Australasian Sketcher, 25 February 1882.

Bendigo Advertiser, 12 Sept 1898.

British Australasian, 24 August 1893: 1011; 5 October 1893: 1172.

Illustrated Melbourne Post, 20 December 1862.

McIvor Times and Rodney Advertiser, 11 September 1873.

The Magpie, 12 January 1866: 3.

Rutherglen Sun, 22 November 1898.

Tatler, 11 June 1898: 27.

Truth (Melbourne), 22 & 29 August 1914.

The Vigneron, 13 August 1886: 80.

The World, 21 December 1882.


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Cite this chapter as: Dunstan, David. 2008. ‘The exhibitionary complex personified: Melbourne’s nineteenth century displays and the mercurial Dr LL Smith’. 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. 9.1–9.18.

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