Melbourne’s beautiful history… behind doors

It’s empty when I go inside. But here at the Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne, Australia’s history is on glorious display!

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. A journalist for more than 20 years, he's been travelling the world since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.


Royal Exhibition Building, Melbourne, Australia

There are a few moments in history when you could argue that modern Australia began.

Of course, people had lived on the continent for tens of thousands of years before the Australia we know had even been imagined, and I don’t want to take away from that. But this story is about the Australia created by Europeans.

You could consider 22 August 1770 as an important date. It was the day that Captain James Cook, a British explorer, landed on the east coast of Australia and ‘discovered’ it.

You might also look at 26 January 1788. It was the day that the First Fleet, full of British settlers, arrived in Sydney Harbour and the flag was planted in the soil. This date is still used for the annual Australia Day celebrations.

Perhaps another date would be 1 January 1901 when Australia became an official country, with the federation of the individual states.

Or perhaps there’s a lesser known date of which we should also take note – 9 May 1901. This was the day that the new country of Australia’s first parliament was opened. It took place in Melbourne in a place known as the Royal Exhibition Building. It’s this building that I want to tell you about today.

Royal Exhibition Building, Melbourne, Australia

The reason I highlight this event is because a country, I feel, is defined in many ways by its government. Not the particular people in the government or the leader of the time, but the structure which allows for the democratic (or not) process by which the people create their nation. So was Australia really a true country until the population had elected its representatives?

Royal Exhibition Building, Melbourne, Australia

While you ponder that thought, let me tell you why the first parliament was in Melbourne. The Australian Constitution specified that the country’s new capital had to be in New South Wales but at least 100 miles from Sydney – so a new city had to be created. Canberra wasn’t ready for the parliament until 1927, so it used the Victorian Parliament building until then.

Royal Exhibition Building, Melbourne, Australia

But, hang on. Didn’t I just say the first parliament was in the Royal Exhibition Building? Yes, it was, but this was simply for the ceremonial opening event. The Duke of Cornwall (later to become King George V) did the official honours in front of about 14,000 people who crammed into the building for the special moment.

Royal Exhibition Building, Melbourne, Australia

The Royal Exhibition Building was initially built in time for the Melbourne International Exhibition in 1880. This was a period in time when international exhibitions were in vogue all around the world – huge shows where a host would show off its own assets and other countries would show off theirs. These exhibitions were hugely popular, with an intense interest from people everywhere to see the exotic displays from across the globe. The first Melbourne International Exhibition had 1.3 million visitors!

Royal Exhibition Building, Melbourne, Australia

By this time, Melbourne had become a rich city. Gold had been found in quite a few parts of the Victorian colony and the wealth was flowing back into the capital. Another exhibition, The Centennial International Exhibition, was held in the building in 1888 to celebrate 100 years since the First Fleet arrived in Australia. It attracted even more visitors this time – 2 million people came – but it made a financial loss because so much had been spent to flaunt the riches of Victoria.

Royal Exhibition Building, Melbourne, Australia

Even after the first parliament was opened here, the building was used for large public events. In fact, what makes the site so special, is that it is still used for its original purpose. There are regular fairs and exhibitions here – motor shows, flower festivals, fashion shows, art fairs, and so on. Almost every weekend it’s used for something.

Royal Exhibition Building, Melbourne, Australia

During the week, though, it’s often empty. That’s how it is when I go in. It’s a large empty space and my footsteps on the wooden floor echo slightly. But, empty of people and stalls, you can appreciate its beauty. And it really is a stunning structure.

Royal Exhibition Building, Melbourne, Australia

The Royal Exhibition Building is about 150 metres long and has high ceilings. Windows all around the upper level let in plenty of light and so the space is bright. Which is fortunate, because it makes it easy to see all the decoration. Over the years, there have been quite a few colour and design schemes of the interior but the current one is a restoration of how it looked in 1901 for parliament’s opening. The pastel yellows and blues give it a welcoming but official feel. In the centre, paintings on the walls and around the dome represent the virtues of a new Australia.

Royal Exhibition Building, Melbourne, Australia

Royal Exhibition Building, Melbourne, Australia

When there is no exhibition going on, the building isn’t open to the public except by guided tour. But, don’t worry, because it’s easy to go on a tour and it’s the best way to see it anyway. The site is managed by the Melbourne Museum, which is right next door. Most days there’s a tour at 2pm and it costs $10 for an adult. You can buy tickets at the museum. However, these details can change if there are events on, so it’s best to check the website. I’ve included the link below.

Time Travel Turtle was supported by Tourism Victoria but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.


This site is on the UNESCO World Heritage List!
I'm on a mission to visit as many World Heritage Sites as I can. Only about 800 more to go... eek!

5 thoughts on “Melbourne’s beautiful history… behind doors”

  1. I’m glad you put in a photo of the The Royal Exhibition Building’s roof interior. I’ve always been a big fan of the detail of architecture and how things are put together. It’s not a joke, I could look at a really amazing building for an hour and never be bored. It drives my wife nuts.

    We are just preparing for out travel journey. We will be traveling full time once the school year is out for my daughter. So, I’m just starting my site now.

    I have a question for you if I may. What camera are you using?

    I want great shots, but I want a point and shoot too. So, I was thinking about the Canon G-7x because it has a 1 inch Cmos sensor. Your thoughts?

    Thank you, Patrick

  2. Of course the Royal Exhibition Building is a UNESCO World Heritage SIte and is only one of two surviving 19th century World Exhibition structures surviving today. The other is the Eiffel Tower in Paris…built for the 1889 Exposition Universelle. Other buildings like the Crystal Palace in London have long gone. For the 1880 World Exhibition, the building was over double the size with a large number of “temporary” annexes. Interestingly, one of these 1880 “temporary” annexes survives and is still in use at a tramway museum some 100km north of Melbourne. In another interesting twist, one of Victoria’s most famous ship wreaks, the Loch Ard [1878], was carrying a range of luxury goods bound for the 1880 exhibition. A large porcelain Peacock, made by Minton in England was washed ashore and is now on display at the Flagstaff Maritime Museum in Warrnambool. The Peacock never made it to the 1880 World Exhibition, however 108 years later it was eventually displayed at the 1988 World Expo in Brisbane on the Victoria stand.


Leave a comment