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The Athenaeum Theatre

Built as Melbourne’s first mechanics’ institute, the Athenaeum is now a central part of the city’s long-lasting love affair with art and culture.

The Melbourne Athenaeum has operated for more than 170 years, since its beginnings as a mechanics’ institute. Back then, ‘mechanic’ meant artisan or tradesperson. In the early 19th century, mechanics’ institutes were part of a British Empire–wide movement to educate and entertain ‘mechanics’ or tradespeople. These venues were an early model for community facilities and are considered the forerunners of both technical colleges and adult education opportunities.

Melbourne’s earliest museum and art gallery was housed in the Athenaeum, drawing interested crowds. Legendary figures such as Mark Twain and Sir Redmond Barry delivered lectures here, and Dame Nellie Melba sang here. The gallery hosted the first exhibition of Frederick McCubbin’s The Pioneer in 1904, and other painters, such as Hans Heysen, Constance Stokes and Albert Namatjira, also exhibited their work here. The Melbourne Society of Women Painters and Sculptors also held talks at the Athenaeum, including one in 1935 at which Mary Cecil Allen spoke.

In October 1896, the world’s first full-length feature film, The History of the Kelly Gang, premiered in Australia at the Athenaeum Hall. The audience probably sat enthralled as the screen was lit up with an hour of moving images – a historic event. The Athenaeum also showed the first ‘talkie’ – a film with synchronised dialogue – The Jazz Singer.

The Athenaeum’s library also provided many Melburnians with access to a hand-picked collection of books and reading material. In the 65 years between the State Library of Victoria putting an end to book borrowing in 1939 and the opening of public libraries in the CBD, the Athenaeum Library was the only place where you could borrow a book in the city centre. In the 1940s, the library saw a peak of 7579 members who each paid a guinea to read and enjoy the library’s collection.

The Athenaeum has significantly contributed to Melbourne’s status as Australia’s cultural capital, and continues its legacy of championing the arts. The building is still promoting and developing local and international music, visual arts, literature, science and theatre. The helmeted statue of Athena, goddess of wisdom, reason and the arts, is a fitting mascot for this cultural institution.

Its subscription library is still going strong, and with its wooden 1920s central desk, one of the oldest working lifts in Melbourne and gold-lettered period signage, it evokes memories of its fascinating past. It has a 30,000-strong collection; hosts regular events, talks, book clubs and a screen club; and gives Melburnians a quiet retreat from the city’s comings and goings.

Melbourne City Council has held meetings here while waiting for the Melbourne Town Hall to be constructed, and the Melbourne Theatre Company has used it as a base for many years. The Melbourne International Comedy Festival, the Melbourne Opera and The Wheeler Centre have all held events at the Athenaeum. It currently boasts a spot as one of the three oldest ongoing institutions in Melbourne, alongside the Melbourne Cricket Club and the Melbourne Club.

Featured image: The Melbourne Athenaeum, Victoria, circa 1873. American & Australasian Photographic Company.

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