Melbourne’s first Mechanics’ Institute was formed in Collins Street in
1839 – well before the gold rush. It is still operating today which, we
think, makes it Melbourne’s oldest public cultural institution. Like many
Mechanics’ Institutes it soon had a library, smaller meeting rooms and a
public hall complete with pipe organ. Mechanics’ Institutes proliferated
across Victoria and in order to indicate that it was also suited to ladies
and the rapidly growing middle classes it changed its name to The Athenaeum
with its implication of the democratic principles of ancient Greece. The
refurbished building was adorned with a statue of Athena who still solemnly
grasps her spear and thrusts her breasts menacingly over Collins Street. The
shops at the front were rented out and one was long occupied by Newmans
Chocolates. (Before I get an angry email from Sarah I should explain that
the sign on the shop had no apostrophe but their letterhead did. There’s a
PhD in that for somebody.)
The Athenaeum Hall was the birthplace of that peculiarly
invention – the feature film. The History of the Kelly Gang first
screened there and for the next ten years Australia remained practically the
only country producing feature films. With the arrival of The Jazz Singer
and the talkies, The Athenaeum became the first theatre in Melbourne that
was wired for sound. The hall also hosted everything from fiery abstinence
meetings to billiards tournaments to recitals by
Nellie Melba to public
lectures by Mark Twain. When the hall was in need of upgrading in the 1930s
a fellow called John Wren stumped up the money. The Athenaeum Theatre
(as it is now called) still operates today.
But the real hidden gem of the building is the library. We
recommend you pay a visit one lunchtime (if you work in the city) or on your
next shopping trip to town – tell them White Hat sent you. Here you will
find a library straight from the past. The books are up to date but the
quiet atmosphere and surroundings speak of many decades of quiet reading. It
may not have the imposing elegance of the library in the Supreme Court or
the grandeur of the domed reading room at the
which many an overseas student has adopted as their living room or the
bustle of the nearby City Library which has free membership. What it does
have is a quiet atmosphere in the middle of the city where you can get a cup
of tea or coffee from the urn and sit down for a little while and enjoy the
pleasure of words.
It remains a subscription library with a small annual fee.
But you don’t have to read a book to enjoy the atmosphere of the library.
Simply enjoy the view out the windows to Collins Street below. Better still,
find a chair, close your eyes and listen very closely. “Pop”. Hear that.
That’s a button popping from the heaving bodice of the intense young lady
engrossed in that romance novel. Hear those short sharp exhalations. That is
the stately matron helping each of the dagger blows in the detective book.
Crime fiction and biographies are the most popular categories with
subscribers. And hear that strange scratching sound. That’s young
Henry Sutton from
Ballarat who taught himself all he needed to know in a Mechanics’ Institute
library. He has discovered the ancient telephone switchboard that is on
display there and is taking it apart to see how it works so that he can
build a better one.
Some forthcoming performances at the Athenaeum: