Culture and heritage

Treasures tell the evolving story of Melbourne’s history

4 October 2023

A wander around the fourth floor of Melbourne Town Hall is like entering a portal to the past.

From the first brick ever laid in the city, anti-Vietnam War posters, and a tea set made for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II to photo albums filled with black and white photos of potholes, and the keys to the city, the City of Melbourne Arts and Heritage Collection is a veritable treasure trove of the eclectic and authentic. 
With more than 13,000 items on display, the collection is a tangible reminder of the stories, people and events that have shaped our city – and our psyche. 

A display rack of photography and artworks in a gallery.
Visitors can peruse racks of artwork and photography capturing moments in Melbourne’s past.

Members of the public can take a walk back through memory lane with the 16-room collection now open for guided tours three days a week. 
The items are a celebration of all that is synonymous with the city, with Eddie Butler-Bowdon, Arts and Heritage Collection Program Manager, declaring it “the best capital city collection in the country”. 

There’s Lord Mayors’ chairs, ceremonial robes, reliquary, the Melbourne Coat of Arms, mementoes from the Melbourne 1956 Olympics, and shelf upon shelf of civic gifts and miscellaneous Melbourne memorabilia. 
It’s hard to play favourites, but for Eddie, a commemorative Moomba-branded bottle of 1980s sparkling Spumante is high on the list. 
“It would’ve been awful but it really captures a moment in time,” he said. 

Alongside the bubbles is a slew of Moomba keepsakes, parade float decorations, portraits of Moomba monarchs and their regalia and photos of Moomba Masters champions.

Crowns and gowns belonging to Moomba monarchs on display in a room.
Memorabilia and regalia commemorating our beloved Moomba festival are on display.

Among the glamour and the gawdy is an extensive collection of civil engineering records including municipal plans and maps, street signs and parking meters. 
The collection is ever-evolving and increasingly reflects the inclusiveness of our city.  

With both artworks and heritage items, it reflects Melbourne’s proud multiculturalism while also celebrating the traditional custodians of the land, the Wurundjeri Woi-Wurrung and Bunurong Boon Wurrung peoples. 
While the artworks by contemporary Aboriginal artists are some of the more recent additions to the collection, they celebrate the oldest continuing culture in the world, spanning more than 60,000 years. 

An emu feather skirt by Yorta Yorta artist Lyn Thorpe and a plate-steel maquette of a traditional eel trap provide a rich insight into the traditions and culture of Melbourne’s first peoples. 

A collection of contemporary Aboriginal art.
There is a growing collection of contemporary Aboriginal art.

Eddie said the once-in-a-lifetime relocation of the collection from Little Bourke Street to Melbourne Town Hall means all items are now housed in a purpose-built temperature and humidity-controlled environment to preserve the pieces and their quality. 

“It is a working collection store, meaning that there are rooms for photography, plinths, space for an artist-in-residence and their materials, as well as the 16 rooms featuring the collection on open display focusing on the various Melbourne narratives.”

The relocation has also made way for our landmark Make Room project, with 50 studio apartments to be built for our most vulnerable community members at the Little Bourke Street site.  

A collection of blue and white street signs.
The collection has a multitude of street signs, photos of potholes and town planning maps.

Lord Mayor Sally Capp said she was pleased the collection had returned to its spiritual home at Town Hall and was now open for the community to enjoy.  
“This is a collection you can’t see anywhere else,” she said. 
“The collection tour will take people on a journey through historical events and moments in our history, beautifully captured by some of our most famous artists and photographers.” 
You can explore it all during a one-hour tour of the City of Melbourne’s Arts and Heritage Collection every Tuesday, Thursday and Friday at Melbourne Town Hall, 90-130 Swanston Street, Melbourne. 
To book, visit What’s On.

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