This symbol of the past must also reflect our present and future

The Royal Exhibition Building could be a key historic landmark of post-pandemic Melbourne.

This article was originally published in The Age on 13 November 2020.
Authored by James Lesh and Kali Myers

As Melburnians wake from our lockdown slumber and take to the streets and parks, we should turn our attention to the heritage places that make our city. The Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is currently under review. This review is an opportunity to stimulate discussion and debate to make this place relevant and exciting for the post-COVID-19 era. What does it mean for a 21st-century Australian city to have a monument to the British Empire at its centre?

The Royal Exhibition Building was designed by prolific architect Joseph Reed in a grand fusion of Byzantine, Romanesque, Lombardic and Italian Renaissance styles at the height of the 1880s Marvellous Melbourne boom. It encapsulates the growth and prosperity of that time. It’s an impressive international example of a Victorian-era exhibition hall. Across the world, few other similar buildings survive: some were demolished, many others burnt down.

When the site opened for the Melbourne International Exhibition in 1880, colonial visitors marvelled at the goods and services imported from across the world. With this building and this exhibition, Melburnians boasted of themselves as proud and loyal imperial subjects and as sophisticated global citizens and consumers.

Following its grand inception, for much of the 20th century the Royal Exhibition Building was conceived of as Melbourne’s white elephant. It was seen as oversized and ostentatious – in 1954, architect Robin Boyd called it ‘obsolete’.

The 1970s heritage movement and central Melbourne’s post-1980s regeneration changed attitudes. As Melburnians embraced Victorian-era Carlton and Fitzroy, the exhibition hall and surrounding gardens were seen to contribute aesthetic and historic interest to the terraces and warehouses of these neighbourhoods. Today, Melburnians flock to Carlton Gardens for White Night illuminations and year-round events and festivals.

Despite this broadening public interest, the heritage potential of the Royal Exhibition Building is not being realised. A compelling public vision drawing on a range of community voices is needed. The current heritage focus is on buildings and structures, to the detriment of considering the intricate history and everyday uses which make the place so important to Melburnians. Similarly, despite consultation with local Indigenous groups, Indigenous perspectives remain a minor component of planning at the site.

Not simply a static physical monument, nor solely an architectural icon, the Royal Exhibition Building is a living place that expresses our community, and our relationships to each other and our past. These aspects of the site must be held in equal regard in the future. Like Federation Square, the Royal Exhibition Building is both a vital contemporary public space and a living heritage place. Community participation, ongoing public use, and acknowledgement of the site’s complex history must be central to its future.

An understated aspect of the Royal Exhibition Building is its central role in the 19th-century British colonial project. It was built for the purposes of trading and selling the goods and services of the British Empire. The systemic violence that accompanied colonial trade in Imperial dominions is well-documented. Legacies of invasion and slavery structured business relationships and colonial production in Marvellous Melbourne. Today, the Royal Exhibition Building remains a heritage place bound to the city’s colonial past. These uncomfortable facts must no longer be forgotten or disregarded.

Heritage places have the potential to inspire us to rethink the past towards more just and equitable futures. Heritage must always account for both physical and social fabric, reflecting the complexity and diversity of contemporary Melbourne.

The Royal Exhibition Building could be a key historic landmark of post-pandemic Melbourne. This would require heritage place leadership bolstering community access and belonging. Another World Heritage Site, the Sydney Opera House, would be an appropriate benchmark. Few places in Australia have as strong an identity and as exciting an event calendar as the Opera House. It is also managed through the heritage system.

The Carlton Gardens is designated for outdoor entertainment and dining over summer, providing an ideal platform for broader public engagement. Creative Victoria brings together our city’s cultural institutions and the Royal Exhibition Building is one of its undervalued and under appreciated public assets. An opportunity exists for Melbourne to offer an exciting vision for how World Heritage Places can be managed for the 2020s.

With strong leadership and by engaging the public, heritage at the Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens has the potential to provide Melburnians with opportunities to come to terms with an aspect of our city’s colonial history towards a thriving urban future.

Dr James Lesh and Dr Kali Myers are researchers at the University of Melbourne. Dr Lesh is a member of the National Trust’s Heritage Advocacy Committee.

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