When the idea of celebrating a century of European settlement in Australia was first raised in 1886, Victoria volunteered to host an international exhibition of arts and industries. The resulting Centennial International Exhibition was a giant trade fair which attracted exhibitors from every state in Australia, and a large number of countries overseas.

Engraving showing the interior of the Melbourne Exhibition Building looking towards the South Australian and Victorian displays of exhibits, with visitors walking between the exhibits

Centennial Exhibition sketches: under the dome in the avenue of nations, looking eastwards, A/S06/09/88/140

The Exhibition was held in the Royal Exhibition Building, which is now World Heritage listed. It opened on 1 August 1888 and ran for 5 months, closing on 31 January 1889. Each exhibiting state or country was allotted a specific area or ‘court’ to display their wares. There was also a fine arts court.

Such a large undertaking required lots of behind-the-scenes work by exhibitors and contractors. With so many people to keep track of, it was decided that all of the exhibitors should have their portraits taken and filed for identification purposes. We hold two volumes of these photographs (others are held by the Public Record Office Victoria, and we’ve listed them the end of this post).

The first album held by the Library is the Album of security identity portraits of members of the British Court, Centennial International Exhibition, Melbourne, 1888. The 397 photographs in this album can be viewed by appointment.

The second is the Album of security identity portraits of members of the Victorian Court, Centennial International Exhibition, Melbourne, 1888. The 544 photographs in this album have been digitised, and can be viewed online and downloaded. This catalogue search will take you to all of the images in the album if you’d like to browse through them. To search for an individual portrait, add a surname at the end of the words in this search box, then click ‘Search’. To find out which company an individual represented, click on the ‘Details’ tab and read the notes. For example SW Armfield (below) represented the firm SW Armfield.

S W Armfield, H28190/25

The only information given about the individuals in the albums is:

  • their name, usually just the surname and initial/s, and
  • the firm that they represented at the exhibition.

For this reason, if you are looking for an individual, it’s best to search by surname only.

The book Official record of the Centennial International Exhibition, Melbourne, 1888-1889 lists exhibitors and prize winners. A listing of all 1918 Victorian exhibits, category by category, starts on page 593 and finishes on page 634. There is no alphabetical list of exhibitors, so it will take a while to find a listing for an individual that you are researching. On page 604, in the class ‘Goldsmiths’ and silversmiths’ work’, entry 501 reads ‘Armfield, S.W., 202 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy – jewellery’, very likely the gentleman pictured above.

The Public Record Office Victoria (PROV) holds more sets of security portraits taken for the 1888 exhibition; part of their record series VPRS 840. These albums cover:

  • Commissioner’s staff
  • Contractors
  • Contractors’ attendants
  • Exhibitors’ attendants
  • Fire Brigade
  • Press
  • New South Wales Court
  • New Zealand Court
  • South Australia
  • Queensland Court
  • Exhibition attendants
  • Victorian Court
  • Victorian exhibitors
  • Fine Arts
  • German exhibitors
  • German Court
  • Minor courts
  • French Courts
  • American Court
  • Austrian Court

The images in the PROV albums have not been digitised, but there is an online index which can be searched by surname or by situation (occupation). For example, type the word ‘press’ in the ‘Situations’ box to get an idea of just how much newspaper coverage the exhibition attracted.

Written by Jennifer Gissing
Librarian, Australian History & Literature Team

(Originally published 28 November 2012, corrected 17 May 2013)

This article has 1 comment

  1. The Library also has 69 portrait photographs of members of the Centennial International Exhibition Orchestra, although unfortunately the individuals’ names are not given: http://search.slv.vic.gov.au/primo_library/libweb/action/dlDisplay.do?vid=MAIN&reset_config=true&docId=SLV_VOYAGER1802164

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