Free, secular & democratic: building the Public Library 1853–1913

Discover the cultural centrepiece of 19th-century Melbourne and the grand vision that inspired it. This exhibition traces the first 60 years of the Melbourne Public Library (now the State Library of Victoria), from its founding in 1853 to the opening of the magnificent domed reading room in 1913.

The Library and the cultural institutions that shared its site – the museum, gallery and art schools – were established by a group of colonial liberals including judge Sir Redmond Barry and architect Joseph Reed. They aimed to create a civic centre that was secular, democratic and enlightened, offering free access to self-improvement through learning.

Free, secular and democratic tells the story of this grand vision and its legacy today. It examines the building’s architecture, including the beautiful Queen’s Hall and domed reading room, and reveals how the Library’s collection was developed. It also revisits the great Intercolonial Exhibition held at the Library site in 1866–67.

The exhibition is curated by Harriet Edquist, Professor of Architectural History at RMIT and Director of RMIT Design Archives. It is one of many Dome Centenary events taking place in 2013, to celebrate our iconic dome and all that it enables.

Free, secular and democratic is a free exhibition, open daily 10am–5pm and until 9pm Thursdays.

This is one of many Dome Centenary events taking place in 2013 to celebrate our iconic dome and all that it enables. 


Watch a 3D recreation of the fascinating evolution of the Library's site, a panel discussion about the dome as artist's muse, and other multimedia under the 'More to explore' heading below.

Image gallery

View our Free, secular and democratic image gallery to see highlights from the exhibition. These include the display case featuring 203 species of hummingbirds, Nicholas Chevalier’s splendid vision of the Library and extraordinary photos of the construction of the iconic dome.

Discovery trail

Collect a brochure from the foyer and follow the map to take a self-guided tour through the Library. Discover images and stories about the building’s history and some of the key people who led the institutions located here. 

Our Dome Centenary

Visit our Dome Centenary website and join us for a year of stories, activities and special events as we head towards the 100th anniversary of our iconic dome in November 2013.

More to explore