The Sydney International Exhibition (17 September 1879 to 20 April 1880) was a determining landmark in the history of the Colony of New South Wales - marking as it did - the State's sense of achievement, progress, and aspirations. Among the most immediate mementos surviving from the exhibition are the prize medals such as this example. The medals all featured the same obverse (front) design by Samuel Begg and Australian floral reverse by James Sayers. The main prize medals awarded were a large and a small bronze, with large and small silver mainly serving as thanks to office bearers and the organisers of displays of especial note. Heads of state were presented with a small gold medal of which the Official Record notes 36 were allocated: a specimen (N20845) is in the Powerhouse collection. The certificate (or diploma) featured the exhibit type, name of the exhibitor and award level and so was considered the principal honour of the Exhibition. For this reason an exhibitor received one for every prize exhibit, but only one medal regardless of the number of prize-winning exhibits. This explains why out of 7,554 certificates awarded, the medals only totalled 5,550.
The exhibition building itself was designed by the colonial architect, James Barnet, and was completed in the Governor's Domain on Macquarie Street within the remarkably short period of eight months. The cruciform plan at its axis featured a renowned dome which dominated Sydney's harbour skyline and no doubt inspired the Premier, Sir Henry Parkes, to coin the appropriate term, 'Garden Palace'. Among the celebrated firsts associated with the event were the use of electric light to build around the clock, and the use of a steam tram to transport visitors. On display at the Exhibition was the rich variety of products, industry and soil of over twenty kingdoms, republics and colonies. The Official Record published in 1881 was fulsome in its praise of the event, and the visitation of 1,022,000 was offered as evidence of its great success. As Executive Commissioner PA Jennings (Sydney Morning Herald, 21 April 1880) proclaimed at the closing ceremony,
'The name of New South Wales has resounded throughout the civilised world . . .'
The building's accidental destruction by fire on 22 September 1882 was met with universal dismay, as evidenced by the availability even as late as 1906 of postcards illustrating the building. Importantly for the Powerhouse Museum, the exhibition represents its birth and its fledgling collection, which was in the Garden Palace at the time of the blaze, had to be started again.
Official Record of the Sydney International Exhibition, 1879. Sydney, 1881
Maguire, R., 'Preserving the Memory of the Garden Palace in Print', in Peter Proudfoot et al., Colonial City, Global City: Sydney's International Exhibition, 1879, Crossing Press, 2000
Young, L., 'Let them see how like England we can be: An account of the Sydney International Exhibition', unpublished MA thesis. University of Sydney, 1983
Free, R.; McDonald, P.; Young, L.; Wade, J., 'Sydney International Exhibition 1879: an exhibition celebrating the centenary of the Sydney International Exhibition' Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, 1979