Melbourne Athenaeum

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Melbourne Athenaeum.jpg
The Melbourne Athenaeum
Address 188 Collins Street
Designation Victorian Heritage Register, Register of Historic Buildings
Capacity 880 (theatre one)
Current use Live theatre, comedy, library, readings
Opened 1839
Rebuilt 1885-1886
Years active 176–177
Architect Smith & Johnson

The Athenaeum or Melbourne Athenaeum is one of the oldest public institutions in Victoria, Australia, founded in 1839. Since 2003 it has been the principal home of Melbourne Opera. The building was added to the Register of Historic Buildings in 1981 and is listed on the Victorian Heritage Register.[1] The theatre is part of Melbourne's East End Theatre District.


Located at 188 Collins Street, Melbourne and originally known as the Melbourne Mechanics' Institution, it was renamed in 1846 as the Melbourne Mechanics' Institution and School of Arts,[2][3] and it was not until 1872 that the building became known as the Melbourne Athenaeum.[4][5]


1839 to 1896[edit]

The first President was Captain William Lonsdale, the first Patron was the Superintendent of Port Philip, Charles La Trobe and the first books were donated by Vice-President Henry Fyshe Gisborne. Originally it was called the Melbourne Mechanics' Institute. This was expanded in 1846 to the Melbourne Mechanics' Institution and School of Arts. The building on Collins Street was completed in 1842. The Athenaeum played a role in the establishment of Mechanics' Institutes in Victoria.

The Melbourne City Council met in the building until 1852 when the Melbourne Town Hall was built.

The Institution changed its name to the Melbourne Athenaeum in 1873. At that time, as now, a focal point was the library. In 1877, membership was 1681 and in 1879 there were 30,000 visits to the library. In 1880 it was reported 'that the floor of the large hall was the only one in Melbourne expressly constructed for dancing'. The front of the building was rebuilt in 1885 and 1886.

Melbourne Athenaeum is not related to the nearby Athenaeum Club.

1896 to 2003[edit]

In October, 1896, the first movie was shown in Australia in the Athenaeum Hall. The Hall became a regular venue for screening films and the premiere of The Story of the Kelly Gang by the Tait brothers was at the Athenaeum in 1906. The theatre in its present form was created in 1921. The theatre was the first venue in Australia to screen talking pictures. The Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC) leased the theatre from 1976 to 1985 when the lease was taken over by various entrepreneurs who formed AT Management in 1997.

The Athenaeum housed a small museum in its early days and then an Art Gallery. The gallery hosted the first exhibition of Frederick McCubbin's The Pioneer in 1904.[4] The gallery also showed paintings by Hans Heysen, Arthur Streeton, Tom Roberts, John Rowell, Rupert Bunny and Albert Namatjira before closing in 1971.[4] The gallery also hosted talks by the Melbourne Society of Women Painters, including one in 1935 that Mary Cecil Allen spoke at.[6] It was converted into a smaller theatre space by the MTC. From 1997–2006 this space was principally used as a rehearsal hall and second theatre ("Ath 2"), since then it has been the venue for The Last Laugh Comedy Club after it moved from North Melbourne.

The library continues to exist as a large subscription library with members throughout Victoria, although its membership has declined from a peak of 7,579 in 1950.

It has been used as a venue for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.


  1. ^ "Melbourne Athenaeum, Victorian Heritage Register (VHR) Number H0501, Heritage Overlay HO587". Victorian Heritage Database. Heritage Victoria. 
  2. ^ Clancy, Frances M; Victoria. Department of Infrastructure (2000), The libraries of the Mechanics' Institutes of Victoria : report prepared for Department of Infrastructure, Victoria – Department of Infrastructure, ISBN 978-0-7311-0937-1 
  3. ^ Baragwanath, Pam (2000), If the walls could speak : a social history of the Mechanics' Institutes of Victoria, Mechanics Institute Inc, ISBN 978-1-876677-32-9 
  4. ^ a b c "175 years of the Melbourne Athenaeum Library – where to from here? Paper presented at the Library History Forum, State Library of NSW, November 2014." (PDF). State Library of New South Wales. Retrieved 12 January 2015. 
  5. ^ "MELBOURNE ATHENAEUM.". The Argus (Melbourne: National Library of Australia). 27 January 1921. p. 9. Retrieved 12 January 2015. 
  6. ^ "Women Painters Entertain Miss Allen.". The Argus (Melbourne: National Library of Australia). 10 October 1935. p. 15. Retrieved 11 March 2015. 

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 37°48′54″S 144°58′02″E / 37.81504°S 144.96736°E / -37.81504; 144.96736