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Burke and Wills Monument

Charles Summers
Bronze statue with granite pedestal
Corner of Swanston and Collins Streets

The Burke and Wills Monument was Melbourne's first public monument and commemorates the Victorian Exploring Expedition of 1860-61. Under the leadership of Robert O'Hara Burke and his second in command, William John Wills, the party set out from Royal Park on 20 August 1860 to explore Australia between Cooper's Creek and the Gulf of Carpentaria. When the news of the death of Burke and Wills reached Melbourne on 2 November 1861, the government, reflecting public opinion, decided to commission a memorial to the explorers. A sum of £4000 was set aside in the February 1862 government estimates for the commission, and a Board of Design chaired by University of Melbourne mathematics professor William Wilson was appointed in November to supervise a competition.

Charles Summers' 1861 design incorporated the heroes with a camel and full-length Aboriginal figures. The 1862 competition maquette, now in the Royal Society of Victoria, placed a seated Wills (modelled after Michelangelo's Giuliano de Medici in Florence) beside the standing Burke, whose cloak links the two figures. A second maquette, now in the Warrnambool Gallery, was made in response to the Board's anxiety that Summers might not be able to cast a work of heroic proportions working from a model one-sixth the final size. The monument was designed and cast at Summers' Collins Street studio. The figure of Burke was first cast in two pieces, but Summers was not satisfied with the result and decided to recast it in one, which he did successfully in the presence of a crowd of 130 people on 1 February 1865.

The figures were placed on a pedestal of Harcourt granite, at the intersection of Collins and Russell streets and unveiled on 21 April 1865, to general acclaim. Four low-relief panels depicting scenes from the expedition, including the death of Burke, were cast and erected in September 1866, as was the bronze coping with a design of flowering nardoo plants. In the panels, Summers drew on several sources in European art, including figures from the Parthenon friezes and Renaissance religious themes such as the Pietà and the expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

The sculpture remained in Collins Street until 1886 when it was moved to Gillott Reserve in Spring Street to make way for cable trams. It was moved again in 1973 to the south-east corner of the Carlton Gardens during the construction of the underground railway loop, and again in 1979 to the City Square where the integrity of the sculpture was compromised by positioning it over chlorinated running water which destroyed its patina and unconsciously mocked the tragedy of death by starvation and thirst. The arrangement of the relief panels was changed, the bronze coping was removed and later found vandalised in a council yard in West Melbourne. In 1988, the Melbourne City Council was pressured to restore the monument to its original design and to conserve this most important example of colonial sculpture in Australia. The work was restored by Meridian Studios in Fitzroy, and moved to its present, though not ideal, site at the south-east corner of Swanston and Collins streets in 1993.

Christine Downer