Walk a little further up from the Town Hall on Collins St. and you’ll come across the Melbourne Athenaeum. Show lights around its veranda scream ‘theatre’, but the Athenaeum actually started up in 1839 as the Melbourne Mechanic’s Institution, dedicated to arguing for education and fair work opportunities. Dig a little deeper into the building and you’ll find a time capsule.
First of all, cross the road and have a look at the building. You should just be able to see shelves peeping out of the second floor windows. The library sits above the theatre itself and still loans out around 30,000 volumes to its members.
The Institution started up its own library for the use of members at the same time that it was established in 1839, making it the oldest library in Melbourne.
The Mechanics Institution provided education in technical subjects, but also served as a sort of social hub with its library, lectures, dances and the theatre. The Athenaeum Theatre was added in 1872 as a large hall in the centre of the building. However, the theatre that you would recognise today with its balconies and dress circle wasn’t built until 1924. The architect wanted a more ‘intimate space’, so they shifted tons of clay onto the lower floor and built a new theatre inside the old one. The Athenaeum was actually better known for screening films than on-stage performances, at least up to 1977 when it closed as a Hoyts cinema and reopened as a theatre. A smaller hall in the building was also used as an art gallery over the years, but competition from other galleries eventually forced it to close and the Melbourne Comedy Club now shares the space.
I was fortunate to meet the Athenaeum’s archivist, Marjorie Dalvean, who took me up the juddering 1930s lift to have a look at the archives. The collection is a motley of odd items including a pair of tape measures, a scrunched chocolate bar wrapper from the theatre, ticket stubs, book stamps from the library and theatre programs. Due to its long history, the Athenaeum also holds a lot of material from Melbourne’s early colonial days. A gilded history of Melbourne from the collection, printed in 1888 by Garryowen, informs me that “relations subsisting between the water-carters and the consumers were never of the most amicable character” in Melbourne’s first water supply scheme.
I said you’d find a time capsule if you kept digging. Here it is. A glass bottle, produced by Fluit Glass Works, which was filled with copies of newspapers from 1 July 1872 along with a collection of gold, silver and copper coins. The capsule was discovered and reburied in 1924, adding papers from that year. In 1991 they included decimal currency as well as photos and posters from the theatre. After around 135 years, the glass jar is broken and sits in the archive cabinets surrounded by objects from the building’s long history.
Many thanks to Marjorie for showing me the Athenaeum’s incredibly varied collection.
Have a look here if you’d like to see more detail on the Athenaeum’s history.