Melbourne’s cultural beginnings revealed in new exhibition

28 May 2013

The creation of Melbourne’s earliest cultural institutions and the people who conceived them are the subject of a new State Library of Victoria exhibition: Free, secular and democratic: building the Public Library 1853–1913 to be launched this Wednesday by the Hon. Heidi Victoria, MP, Minister for the Arts.

This free exhibition takes us back to 1850s Melbourne and the beginnings of Australia’s oldest public library, the Melbourne Public Library (now the State Library of Victoria), and its sister institutions the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Museum, and the art and technical schools that all shared the Library site.

Free, secular and democratic refers to the liberal founding principles of the Melbourne Public Library. The exhibition shows how the Library was designed to provide working people with free and equitable access to information and the skills needed to build young Melbourne’s future.

Focusing on the Library’s first 60 years, the exhibition brings together key documents and artefacts from each institution that began at the Library and positions them within the architectural history of the site.
Sue Roberts CEO and State Librarian says Free, secular and democratic is a fascinating glimpse into Melbourne’s past and shows how forward-thinking some of our early leaders were.

'The world’s first public libraries appeared in England in 1850. Here on the other side of the world we created ours just three years later. There was a lot happening in Victoria at that time – we’d just separated from New South Wales, gold was discovered, the population was booming but in the middle of all this we created a great library that became Victoria’s cultural centrepiece. What is inspiring about this story is its ambition, its idealism, and its legacy today reflected in Melbourne’s deep and continuing cultural growth.'

Minister for the Arts Heidi Victoria said the exhibition reflects on the role of the State Library and its place in the life and development of our State.

'Just as the State Library was central to life in the fledgling colony 160 years ago, today it is a proud part of our City of Literature and our State, welcoming more than 1.5 million people each year. To support this continued evolution and growth, the Victorian Government has invested an additional $3 million in the Library over the next two years to enable it to meet the challenges of a changing environment, embrace the opportunities of new technology, and continue to be a cultural and knowledge centre for all Victorians well into the future.'

Free, secular and democratic displays the original architectural plans for the Library drawn by Joseph Reed along with his company’s designs for the Melbourne Town Hall, Royal Exhibition Building and Trades Hall. A multimedia reconstruction of Reed’s Intercolonial Exhibition Building takes visitors through the building as it would have appeared in 1866 prior to its demolition to make way for the domed reading room, which celebrates its centenary this year.
Beautiful plans for the reading room are exhibited alongside designs for its furnishing such as the heritage listed wooden reading chairs that are still in use today. The Dome was for a time the largest building of its type in the world and the exhibition reflects on the architectural and building skill of Melbourne’s early citizen who created it.
Also on show are documents that inspired the Library’s designers such as ornamental patterns unearthed in the ruins of Pompeii and the works of Andrea Palladio, one of the most influential individuals in western architecture. Pre-Raphaelite designer Edward La Trobe Bateman drew upon these materials to create the grand interior of the Library’s Queen’s Hall, the oldest building in the library complex.
Free, Secular and Democratic is curated by Harriet Edquist, Professor of Architectural History at RMIT and Director of RMIT Design Archives. It runs until February 2014 and forms part of the Dome Centenary celebrations, marking 100 years of our magnificent domed reading room.

This exhibition is complemented by a program of public talks and events. Full details are available online at:

Free, secular and democratic: building the Public Library 1853–1913
Thursday 30 May 2013 - Sunday 2 February 2014
Keith Murdoch Gallery
State Library of Victoria
Open 10am–5pm daily (to 9pm Thursdays)
Free entry

The exhibition is sponsored by Bates Smart architects and supported by Australians Studying Abroad.


Media inquiries

Matthew van Hasselt or Georgina Smart
State Library of Victoria, 03 8664 7263,
328 Swanston Street
Melbourne Victoria 3000