Sydney International Exhibition 1879

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Statue of Queen Victoria by Marshall Wood in the Garden Palace, 1879-1880

Statue of Queen Victoria by Marshall Wood in the Garden Palace, 1879-1880. Collection; Powerhouse Museum.

One hundred and thirty years ago, on the 17 September 1879, the Sydney International Exhibition opened the doors of its main building the ‘Garden Palace’. Like other international exhibitions held around the world it proved an enormous success, even though Australia was so isoolated from Europe and America.

The Commissioners of the Sydney 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 it was the 1,045,898 visitors that passed through its gates were perhaps the most eloquent testimony to its triumph.

Macquarie Street entrance to the Garden Palace, photographed by Messrs Richards and Company, 1879-1880.

Macquarie Street entrance to the Garden Palace, photographed by Messrs Richards and Company, 1879-1880. Collection; Powerhouse Museum.

The main feature of the Sydney exhibition 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 tons of galvanised corrugated iron; all of which was lost when the ‘Garden Palace’ was destroyed by fire in 1882.

This 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. Only a few items were rescued after the fire; a piece of molten glass and a piece of metal from the statue of Queen Victoria.

Molten metal shard from Queen Victoria's statue.

Molten metal shard from Queen Victoria's statue. Collection; Powerhouse Museum.

This catastrophic event only proved to be a stumbling block for the Museum’s curator, Joseph Maiden, who set about rebuilding the collections. Just over a year later, on 15 December 1883, the Technological Museum, with 5000 new objects, was opened to the public in the Sydney Domain’s Agricultural building, situated right next to the remains of the old ‘Garden Palace’.