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Melbourne had its first exhibition building in William Street by 1854. A photograph reveals a diminutive colonial echo of London's Crystal Palace in Hyde Park. Melburnians were exhibition enthusiasts and the city's patron of culture, Judge Redmond Barry, presided over events in 1854, 1861, 1866, 1872 and 1875. These were, typically, edifying 'national' displays of manufactures, assets and achievements; and preliminaries to participation in events overseas. The 1854 exhibition opened for 30 days and was visited by 40 000 people. The first Age newspaper was printed in the building. In 1866 the first 'intercolonial' exhibition was staged at the State Library of Victoria with a hall designed by the architect Joseph Reed and interior stencils by Edward Latrobe Bateman. Barry lectured on civilisation's high values to workers, but many displays were more commercial. Sargood & Co. had gentlemen's apparel, Alcock & Co. their Australian billiard tables, and a huge pyramid depicted in scale the quantity of Victorian gold produced since 1851.

The 1875 show was a triumph of intercolonial co-operation that received 240 000 visitors before the exhibits were shipped to America for the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Victoria secured an international exhibition of its own after participating at Paris in 1878, but not before Sydney (1879). The city's land boom decade began with the Melbourne International Exhibition, 1880-81, at the Royal Exhibition Building in the Carlton Gardens, and concluded with the close of the Centennial International Exhibition (1888-89). The heyday of international exhibitions may have ended but exhibitions after 1900 included those of Australian manufactures promoted by the Australian Natives Association, the first Exhibition of Women's Work (1907), the first Motor Show (1912), a Child Welfare Exhibition (1913) and a display from the Australian War Museum (1921-22). Post-1945 exhibitions reflected Australians' consumerism and obsession with technology, lifestyle and material acquisitions as home, boat, motor, computer, antiques, wine and food shows became popular. In 1996 the newly completed Melbourne Exhibition Centre on Southbank became Melbourne's principal exhibition venue and an intended counter to Sydney's Darling Harbour complex.

David Dunstan