GLAMming it Up – Two Days in Melbourne

Entrance to State Library of Victoria

State Library of Victoria

Galleries, libraries, archives and museums are known as the GLAM institutions. I spend a lot of time in these places doing research, but I also enjoy visiting exhibitions and taking behind the scenes tours.  When I travel I try to squeeze in an exhibition or two.  Unfortunately I find that I often don’t have much time to do this so I either miss out or I have to cram as much as I can into a short space of time.

I’ve written previously about my two-day GLAM tour of Canberra.  Last month I did a similar two-day intensive GLAM tour of Melbourne. So hold onto your hats and breathe deeply. My whirlwind tour is about to begin!

Day 1 – Behind the Scenes

Entrance to the Public Records Office of Victoria

Public Records Office of Victoria

Where:  Public Records Office of Victoria

How to get there:

  • Tram 57: West Maribyrnong, get off at Haines St.
  • Train: Catch any line that stops at North Melbourne.

I was in Melbourne for the Buildings, Books and Blackboards conference.  The organisers of this conference arranged for a behind the scenes tours of the Public Records Office as well as the State Library of Victoria.  I have undertaken research work at these two institutions many times before but I had never taken a guided tour.  I was looking forward to it.

The Public Records Office is the official archives for the Victorian government.  Our tour guide, Jack, explained that the staff of the Public Records Office are happy that the visitor numbers to the Office in North Melbourne have declined over the years. Why? Because the Public Records Office know that due to their digitisation program many more people are accessing the records than in the past, and finding it more convenient because they can do this research in their own homes. Three times as many records are accessed online than are accessed through visits to the reading room.  The message is clear – always check the Public Records Office website first to see if the records you want to access have been digitised before you plan a visit.

Some interesting things that I learned on this tour are:

  • Wills, probates and inquests are the most frequently accessed records;
  • The Melbourne City Council rates records dating from 1845 are one of the longest continuous rate records in the world;
  • The largest item is the Duffy Map which was made with a view to increasing agricultural settlement in Victoria presented to parliament in 1862.  A truck is needed to moved it from storage;
  • Prisoner photos are attached to prison records from the 1920s;
  • I thought that the 1891 monster petition for women’s suffrage in Victoria was the only monster petition, but apparently this was quite a common form of petitioning parliament. (I have since found that the 1891 petition has been digitised, click here to see if someone you are researching signed it);
  • Nineteenth century records are still being transferred into the Public Records Office from the various Victoria government departments.

The Public Records Office is easy to visit using public transport.  Take some time well before your visit to read the website and understand what this archive holds.  Identify the records that you want to access and order them at least a day before your visit.

What:  State Library of Victoria

How to get there:  The library is located in the CBD opposite  the building that houses the Melbourne Central train station which is a city loop station.  Alternatively, catch any tram that runs along Swanston street, get off at La Trobe Street.

Domed Reading Room, State Library Victoria

View of the Latrobe Reading Room, State Library of Victoria.

In the afternoon I participated in the first of two tours of the State Library of Victoria. It was a privilege to listen to the Library’s Rare Printed Collections Manager, Des Cowley, talk about some of the old, rare books they hold.

Des Cowley guided us through the ‘Mirror of the World‘ exhibition on level four. I had never been up this high in the dome of the reading room before and found there was not enough time to gawk at the view as well as appreciating the fine exhibition at hand.  I’ll definitely have to visit this level again.

The best thing about this tour was being immersed in the world of beautiful rare books.  Some of the things that I learned on this tour were:

  • The State Library of Victoria was founded in 1854;
  • The State Library of Victoria has one of the largest collection of chess books in the world;
  • It has one of the largest collection of children’s literature in Australia;
  • I learned about ‘elephant’ books which are as large as their name implies.  The books we saw were created to show life-sized birds and were hand-coloured after printing.  Every six months a library staff member turns the page;
  • The Library has acquired the library of renowned historian, Greg Dening;
  • The oldest book we saw in the Mirror of the World exhibition was published in 1297.
  • We also saw the first illustrated book published in New South Wales – published in 1811.

A photographer for the library was snapping away during our tour.  Click here to see Des Cowley in action and some of the books he showed us.

Day one of my two-day GLAM tour was over.  If you have a chance to go on tours which are connected to conferences I recommend that you take advantage of the opportunity.  Aside from the places visited it enabled me to get to know a few of the participants at the conference and their research interests.

Day 2 – Four Exhibitions in One Day

Now the pace accelerated.  On day two I visited four GLAM institutions.

Picture on window with water streaming down.

‘Flick that Chip From Your Shoulder’ by Eko Nugroho, 2012. This was photographed on the ‘water wall’ at the front of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), December 2012. Reproduced with permission of the NGV

What: National Gallery of Victoria

How to get there: The Gallery is walking distance from Flinders St train station.  It is also serviced by numerous trams that go along St Kilda Rd.

I started the day by visiting the latest blockbuster exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, Radiance: The Neo-Impressionists with my mother.  Art expresses the feelings of people as well as reflecting their experiences.  It is important that histories reflect this too.  One of the reasons I enjoy exhibitions of eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth century art is because of the insights into the period which I can gain.

We spent an enjoyable morning at this exhibition.  I thoroughly sapped the batteries of my phone by using the QR codes in the exhibition to access informative video discussions of the pieces. This exhibition runs until March 17th so you still have time to view it.

After viewing the exhibition I spent some time observing the mural by Eko Nugroho which was placed on the Gallery’s famous water wall.  This year I want to read more books written by women of diverse backgrounds which has made me think that I should return to the Gallery to immerse myself in the art of different cultures too.

What:  Shrine of Remembrance

How to Get There:  Take a train into the CBD, get off at Flinders St Station and catch a tram down St Kilda Rd.

Front of the Shrine of Remembrance building in Melbourne.

Shrine of Remembrance, Melbourne

Given that I had three other institutions to visit that day I probably spent a bit too long at the Gallery.  Consequently I only had a brief period available to me to visit the Shrine of Remembrance.  Fortunately it is just a short walk down the road from the Gallery.  I wanted to visit this because I have been researching World War I.

The relationship between the secular remembrance of the war dead to religion is a theme of interest to me. I was struck by the use of the word ‘holy’ at the shrine:

This holy place commemorates Victoria’s glorious dead. They gave their all even life itself that others might live in freedom and peace.  Forget them not.

Plaque inside the Shrine of Remembrance

Word 'holy' etched on concrete.

On the ground near the entrance to the Shrine of Remembrance.

Of course, the use of the word ‘Shrine’ itself has religious origins.

As I was leaving I turned back to view the entrance of the Shrine.  There, at my feet I was the word ‘holy’. This memorial, built in the late 1920s and early 1930s, was part of an era emerging but not fully removed from religion.

I really did not have quite enough time at the Shrine of Remembrance and my visit was affected by a growing anxiety about the time.  I had an appointment for my second behind the scenes tour of the State Library of Victoria which I was looking forward to. So I caught a tram up St Kilda Road and Swanston Street for my third visit to a GLAM institution that day.

I arrived at the State Library of Victoria puffing and slightly late but quickly immersed myself in a discussion and showing of old children’s books by the library’s Children’s Research Librarian, Juliet O’Conor.  While I have spent some time researching this collection I have  not been able to give it as much time as I would have liked.  I found the overview of the collection given by O’Conor was valuable.  Time flew.

I left the library some time after 2pm and snatched a quick lunch.  By this time I was flagging but there was one more exhibition to visit before my appointment with the optometrist at the end of the day.

What:  The Old Treasury Building

How to get there: This is on Spring St at the intersection with Collins St.  Catch a Collins St tram or use the train and get off at the Parliament station which is on the city loop.

Sandstone Building

The Old Treasury Building

The Old Treasury Building is a grand building designed by John James Clark to store the gold that was pouring off the Victorian goldfields during the gold rush in the 1850s.  Clark was nineteen when he designed the building. Nineteen!

For most of 2012 there was an exhibition about Clark in the Treasury Building.  Each time I visited Melbourne I had wanted to visit the exhibition but I couldn’t fit it in my schedule.  This time I was determined to fit it in, no matter what the effort.

I arrived in the foyer realising that I did not have much time to view the exhibition so I spoke to the volunteer behind the desk and asked her which rooms housed it.  She told me that I was lucky to see it.  I had arrived on the last afternoon of the exhibition!

This was the fourth exhibition I viewed that day.  Because I was tired and in a hurry I did not view it in the contemplative mood that would have allowed me to absorb what I was viewing properly.  I struggled to stop myself from rushing from room to room, ticking off the exhibits I saw.

I was amazed at the drawings that Clark made as a child in England.  His talent was evident from an early age.  I walked from room to room then wandered downstairs.  The strength of the building is evident.

I will have to visit the exhibitions at the Treasury Building again some time, particularly those that are shown in the vaults below street level.  There was an exhibit, ‘Forgotten Faces:  Chinese and the Law’ which include photos of Chinese prisoners and a display about the relationship between the Ned Kelly gang and the Chinese living in Beechworth.  I also enjoyed the panorama of Melbourne in the nineteenth century. In one of the rooms upstairs I found the monster petition for women’s suffrage which I mentioned earlier in this post.

That was the end of my two-day Melbourne GLAM tour, but why not give a nod to the other meaning of glam and buy some clothes?  I had to go to Richmond for my appointment but I also managed to fit in some clothes shopping in Bridge Rd.

Yes, I was exhausted, but I did it!  I managed to complete an ambitious schedule.  However, I don’t recommend doing four exhibitions in one day, unless you are like me and are a visitor to the city and won’t get the chance to see the exhibitions another time.

Aside from having enough energy to embark on such an ambitious program, there was one vital ingredient that made this tour possible – good public transport.  I was on and off trams all day.  Within the CBD they are dependable because they run so frequently.  While Melbourne’s new Myki ticketing system has had its glitches, it is great having one ticket that can be used as many times as you want within a large zone in one day.  It looks like a tourist Myki pack will be available soon too.

If other Australian cities want to achieve Melbourne’s success in attracting tourists to their cultural institutions they need to provide frequent public transport around the inner city and CBD.  They need to sell an affordable ticket that enables tourists to get around all day without having to buy another ticket for each journey.  It is understandable that governments place cultural institutions in outer suburbs where there is more land, but if they are going to do so they need to provide frequent, reasonably priced public transport to that venue.  Visitors are turned off by spending two hours changing buses and trains trying to reach a venue.

Ultimately though, GLAM institutions need to provide a welcoming atmosphere and a quality experience for visitors.  The places I visited on this tour did just that.

9 thoughts on “GLAMming it Up – Two Days in Melbourne

  1. Wow, a busy couple of days indeed! Did you see the tiny piece of Babylonian cuneiform writing in the Mirror of the World exhibition? I’ve browsed my way through that exhibition four times now, but it’s always that tiny scrap of writing from so long ago that thrills me. (I know, I know, it’s only something prosaic like a laundry list, but still, it’s *writing*!)


    • No, I missed that. I was in sensory overload while I was doing the tour so need to do it again. But I got a similar thrill by seeing some cuneiform writing on a paving stone from the palace of the Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II, 883–859 BCE at MONA in Hobart. I had not known about this king until my daughter studied him last year at school. Then to find a fragment from his life!


  2. Whoa! What a busy few days. Great reading and heaps of information for those who want to visit. I liked the shopping interlude too 🙂 Thanks!


    • Glad you enjoyed the post Chloe. I have to laugh about me and “glam” in the clothes department. I don’t enjoy clothes shopping so any I do is because my wardrobe is getting a bit desperate. Squeezing the shopping in on this kind of day gives an indication of my priorities and my clothing needs!


  3. Lucky you – I really enjoyed reading this and will store away your advice re PRO Vic as I want to do some research there that I just ‘must’ do in person! I look forward to hearing about your Canberra trip too.


    • When you are planning your trip to the Public Records Office make sure you get in touch with them before you leave. They provide wonderful assistance for country and interstate visitors to ensure that they get the most out of their visit.

      I was in Canberra again on the day you wrote this comment. We left at 5:30am and returned about 10:30pm – an exhausting day! We visited the Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia. It was clear that those made the movie, ‘Moulin-Rouge’ studied his paintings. We had a very enjoyable morning at this exhibition.

      In my efforts to find a cafe on Lake Burley-Griffen for breakfast when we arrived we stumbled on the National Museum of Australia. The cafe was good and we had a quick look at the exhibits on the ground floor. We saw a fascinating vehicle called the Saw Doctor’s wagon which was built by an itinerant worker who travelled through country NSW and Victoria from the time of the Depression until the 1960s. If you get a chance I recommend that you visit the Museum to see this amazing vehicle in real life, even if you only have ten minutes.

      One of the highlights of my day was finding the home of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS). Inside was a bookshop for their publishing arm, the Aboriginal Studies Press. I suspect this visit will spawn another blog post as I bought a couple of books there which I will probably review. As it turned out I spent last weekend reading another book published by them and I am in the midst of writing the review for it.

      I will be making more trips to Canberra as my daughter is moving there. Already I am looking forward to visiting the Turner exhibition at the National Gallery when it opens in the middle of the year.


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