The 1879 Sydney International Exhibition

The Sydney International Exhibition opened the doors of its main building the ‘Garden Palace’ on 17 September 1879 and closed them seven months later. Many figures in colonial Sydney talked of the success of the huge project and the Commissioners of the Sydney International Exhibition certainly felt it had “undoubtedly emphasized a new era in the history of the Colony, and projected the value of Australia on the minds of the inhabitants of those older countries”. But the 1,045,898 visitors that passed through its gates were perhaps the most eloquent testimony to its triumph.

The main feature of the Sydney exhibition, like the international ones that preceded it, was an ornate building, the ‘Garden Palace’, which was over 244 metres long and had a floor space of over 112,000 metres. Designed by the Colonial Architect James Barnet the building included 4.5 million feet of timber, 2.5 million bricks and 243 tone of galvanised corrugated iron. 

This building, and a number of smaller ones, was erected in the grounds of the Sydney Domain where it dominated the Sydney skyline for three brief years before the ‘Garden Palace’ was destroyed by fire in 1882. This was no small loss to the Australian colony as many of the objects shipped from around the globe were still housed in the building and were destroyed as well. It was also a devastating blow for the Powerhouse Museum, or the ‘Technological, Industrial and Sanitary Museum’ as it was then known, for the many of the exhibition objects had been earmarked as the first acquisitions for the new museum.

Planning for the establishment of the Technological Museum began in 1878 and continued through to 1880 when a committee was established to select specimens from the 1879 Exhibition. As the name implies the museum was intended to for the public instruction of ‘working men’ in Australia. For this reason it made perfect sense to select, and purchase, exhibits from the exhibition and many of these were housed in the Ceylon, Singapore and adjacent court of the Garden Palace building. Other objects were to be delivered after they had been displayed at the Melbourne Exhibition which opened in 1880. 

By September 1882 many of the objects were ready for the Technological Museum’s grand opening when disaster struck and fire engulfed the building. Only a few items were rescued after the fire; a piece of molten glass, a piece of asbestos and a piece of metal from the statue of Queen Victoria while the only thing to survive from the museum collections appear to have been some iron samples donated by Lord Dudley. But the curator, Joseph Maiden, recognised the disaster provided a new opportunity for the museum and he sent out letters to contributors to the 1879 Exhibition asking for new items for the museum. The response was remarkably positive and just over a year later, on 15 December 1883, the Technological Museum, with 5000 objects, was opened to the public in the Agricultural building which had survived the previous year’s fire. 

The Museum’s original objective was to assist in the development of the natural resources of New South Wales, exhibit examples of manufacturing, and publish material to aid producers, manufacturers and consumers in their choices. Given these goals it is no surprise to find the early collection reflected the make-up of the International Exhibition that preceded it shows how close the original links were between the Powerhouse Museums early collections and the 1879 Sydney International Exhibition.

Geoff Barker, 2010

Baker, R. T., ‘Technological Museum’, in the Australian Technical Journal of Science and Art, Vol. 1, No. 2, 30 March, 1897
Commissioners of the Sydney International Exhibition, ‘Official Record of the Sydney International Exhibition1879’, Thomas Richards, Government Printer, Sydney 1881
Davison, G., Webber, K., Yesterday’s Tomorrows; the Powerhouse Museum and its Precursors 1880-2005, Powerhouse Publishing in association with the University of New South Wales Press, 2005
P., Proudfoot, R. Maguire, and R. Freestone (eds.), Colonial City Global City, Sydney’s International Exhibition 1879, Crossing Press, Sydney, 2000


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