SBS > Gold > Arts and Entertainment > Melbourne a cultural Mecca

Melbourne a cultural Mecca

The success of the Victorian gold rush injected great wealth into the society and helped shape Melbourne into a cultural Mecca and place renowned for its art rich society.

The lure of gold brought many highly skilled, educated people to Australia, particularly Victoria, to try their hand as diggers. Within this burgeoning population were many talented artists who, while skilled in creativity, were not as competent with the hard labour of the goldfields. Artists such as S.T. Gill and Eugene von Guerard gave up their dreams of gold and chose to settle in Melbourne and continue with their art. This influx of artists into Melbourne was reflected in the culture of the time and embraced by the Government. The vision of Melbourne as a centre for arts and culture was endorsed with the funding of buildings and strong structures on which the arts and sciences would flourish. This funding of cultural institutions, such as the State Library of Victoria, the National Gallery of Victoria and the University of Melbourne was a way for the city to display its importance to the world and ensure Melbourne was recognised for the sophisticated, cosmopolitan place it aspired to be. It also created a strong link to the culture of the mother country from which Melbourne sought approval.

The Public Library – saviour from other temptations

One man prominent in all three institutions was Redmond Barry, the Chief Justice of Victoria, best known for sentencing the bushranger, Ned Kelly, to death in 1880. Barry was appointed as Chairman of the Melbourne Public Library after Governor Charles La Trobe allocated 13 000 pounds for the erection of the building. It would be the first government-maintained free public library in Australia. A competition for the best two architectural designs submitted for a library building was conducted. First prize was awarded to Joseph Reed, who went on to design other important buildings, including the Melbourne Town Hall and the great Exhibition Buildings in Carlton Gardens. The library opened on February 11th in 1856 by Major-General Edward McArthur, Acting Governor of Victoria, in the building that eventually cost 16 000 pounds. The library, now known as the State Library of Victoria, was an important addition to the community. Governor Sir Charles Hotham said:

"I tell you as your friend and fellow-colonist that here you will find society that will draw you away from other temptations, and I hope that the Library will contain books of all languages and descriptions, so that you may never say that you are at a loss for references or information on any subject."

A contemporary look at the State Library of Victoria

Melbournians flock to new art Museum

After the success of the Public Library, the State Government allocated 2000 pounds for creating a public art collection. This artwork would be housed in a building extended off the Public Library known as the Melbourne Museum of Art. Opening in 1861, the Museum was an instant success with the people of Melbourne with over 62 000 visiting in its first two months. The collection of works grew as the Government provided more money (brought in mainly by the payment for diggers’ licences) to the Commission of the Fine Arts, formed in 1863 and chaired by Redmond Barry, to purchase modern paintings. By the end of 1864 the Gallery, as it had become known, housed 55 works and would soon start acquiring paintings from European National Collections and original pictures from the Modern Schools. The official name change to the National Gallery of Victoria, as inspired by the National Gallery, London, occurred in 1870, the same year the ‘School of Art’, located in the Gallery, was opened. Established to train emerging artists, it was attended by some of Australia’s best known painters, such as, Tom Roberts, Frederick McCubbin, Arthur Streeton, Arthur Boyd and Sidney Nolan.

Public Library, National Gallery and Museum
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria

University to act as "agency of civilisation"

Another cultural institution that was a direct product of the gold rush was the University of Melbourne. The legislation establishing the University was passed early in 1853, as a result it is older than most Universities in England. While education was seen as important, so too was the moral character of the colony and so the University was also designed to act as an "agency of civilisation". Having no links with any churches, the purely secular institution welcomed all young men from affluent classes and some brilliant scholarship students (women were not admitted until 1881). However there were few secondary schools able to prepare students for University entrance and so the student intake was very low for many years. When classes commenced in 1855 there were sixteen students and four professors. Redmond Barry headed the University as Chancellor up until his death in 1880. The University continued to grow, and although it suffered difficult times, it remains today as a pre-eminent institution.

All three institutions were important in shaping the history of Victoria and remain integral to the culture and people of Melbourne.


By Lisa Breen


Weston Bate, Victorian Gold Rushes, McPhee Gribble Publishers, 1988.

University of Melbourne website

National Gallery of Victoria website


| Top | Home  | About the VCC  | Contact us |