Inside the Collection

Sydney International Exhibition 1879

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’.

14 responses to “Sydney International Exhibition 1879

  • Thanks Geoff for this information and the great photos of the Sydney International Exhibition. I am preparing a talk for my U3A Australian History class in Canberra on the Exhibition and this info is invaluable. I have a bronze medallion from the Exhibition “Second Award”.

  • hi guys interesting read … I think I have a plate painted for this exh opening its the only one I can find exist and would love a contact to help me please its a blue and white porcelain plate with Australia on the back and has a picture of this palace on the front …… any advice would be great

  • I have a rectangular crystal paperweight with the Garden Palace etched into the back of it. I can recall my grandfather telling me to look after this piece but until now hadn’t really thought about what it was. What is your advice?

  • I have an ocarina with “Sydney Exibition 1879” stamped in the clay. The year is currently 2019. This item was made in Vienna, Austria as noted by another stamp on the clay by someone named M. Feinn. This thing has managed to make it litterally around the world in its 140 year life, all the way to Wisconsin, USA. Im amazed at the little pieces of history that have made it this far.

  • I have aquired a small piano from Barnett Samuels and son, gold award winning plaque on it, Sydney exhibition plaque and the BSS plaque in the centre of the other two. How did it end up in the UK London 2019

  • I have a glass tankard beautifully engraved with my GG Uncle’s full name “John David Wilson International Exhibition Sydney 1879” and a decorative wreath. Was there a special dinner function held with distinguished guests at this exhibition? Was there a guest list?

  • A family member has a Sydney International Exhibion 1879 season ticket £3 3s that belonged to my great great grandfather JEO Daly. The ticket had his photograph and his signature as well as the secretarys signature. It seems like a very modern idea for the time.

  • I have a medallion from the exhibition labelled R.E. Nicholson but I’m having trouble finding out what the medallion was awarded for. Can anyone help with were to find this information. Thanks Debbie

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