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  • Women Exhibitors at the First Australian International Exhibitions
  • Kirsten Orr

In 1879 the British colony of New South Wales hosted the first international exhibition in the Southern Hemisphere.2 Never before had an international exhibition been held so far from the cultural and commercial centres of Europe. Exhibits and visitors from all the great nations of the world made the daunting sea journey to the remote and little-known colony that, less than forty years before, had been the destination mainly of convicts and their keepers. The Sydney International Exhibition was immediately followed by the Melbourne International Exhibition of 1880 in the neighbouring colony of Victoria, approximately six hundred miles to the south. The success of these exhibitions inspired the Melbourne Centennial International Exhibition, held in 1888 to celebrate one hundred years of white settlement in Australia. All 3 exhibitions were magnificent events to which almost everyone was welcome.3 These were events where visitors surveyed the greatest achievements of the age and participated enthusiastically in the festivities, the pomp and the ceremony.

This article examines new empirical data on the participation of colonial women as exhibitors at the Australian international exhibitions and the nature and extent of the items they exhibited. It compares the participation rate with data compiled by Paul Greenhalgh for the Paris Expositions Universelles (1855, 1867, 1878, 1889, 1900) and reveals that women in the Australian colonies participated as exhibitors at a significantly higher rate than their European and American sisters. Colonial women were living in settler societies, striving to maintain a spirit of Englishness and subscribing to the ideology of middle class gentility, with its principle of distinct gendered spheres of work, that was a common feature of the English-speaking middle classes throughout the British Empire. In this context, and supported by their previous experiences at intercolonial exhibitions, they were motivated to participate as exhibitors by a desire to take part in public life, to be recognised for their contributions to colonial progress and to promote women's work. The article garners specific examples of exhibited items from the exhibition catalogues to provide an insight into the nature and extent of women's contributions. Although the Australian international exhibitions primarily exposed colonial women to gendered views of productive work, they also provided independent and collective experiences that assisted women in the following decade to engage in social and political roles outside the home. There is an intriguing correspondence between the high participation rate of colonial women at the exhibitions and the fact that Australian women were among the first to achieve female suffrage.


The Australian international exhibitions were modelled on their international counterparts and were housed in majestic, purpose-built exhibition halls reminiscent of the original Crystal Palace, built for the 1851 Great Exhibition in London. The Garden Palace in Sydney and the Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne were uplifting spaces, surmounted by domes over the central points of their cruciform layouts and ornamented with statues and fountains. Exhibits were displayed in national courts4 that followed the established tradition of reflecting the world order and the power relations among the exhibiting countries, with the host nation taking pride of place. In the Garden Palace, the New South Wales exhibit was located under the dome flanked by Victoria and the other Australian colonies. In close relationship to New South Wales was Great Britain, diagonally opposite and occupying the largest area—an entire quadrant of the building. The longitudinal ceremonial axis divided the Old World from the New. America was located directly facing Great Britain as the equivalent power in the New World. There was a similar layout for the Melbourne International Exhibition the following year, although this time with Victoria at the centre. Exhibits were organized by a taxonomic classification system derived from the 1851 Great Exhibition.

To understand why colonial women participated as exhibitors at the Australian international exhibitions, it is necessary to consider aspects of the culture of colonial society in which they were living. The population considered itself "English," though now located on the other side of the world in a far-flung outpost of the British Empire, and maintained its Englishness by perpetuating cultural traditions and recreating "places of...

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