The Project

Victoria Arcade, Melbourne (constructed 1854). J S Campbell & Co, lithographers, 1853. State Library of Victoria, H2087.
Victoria Arcade, Melbourne (constructed 1854). J S Campbell & Co, lithographers, 1853. State Library of Victoria, H2087.

This website and blog is inspired by and intended to share my PhD research project at the University of Melbourne entitled A fashionable promenade? The nineteenth-century shopping arcade in Australia: history, heritage and representation.

From 1853 until 1901 Australian entrepreneurs eagerly built over thirty glass-roofed European-style shopping arcades in capital cities and regional centres all over the country. The first was the Queen’s Arcade, built in Melbourne in 1853, while the last was the 1901 Town Hall Arcade in Townsville. During this period numerous arcades were built in metropolitan centres, regional cities and towns throughout Australia.

Fashionable as sites of leisure throughout the world since the early nineteenth century, the arcades were represented in the media of the day as elegant shopping spaces for a genteel middle-class clientele, separated from the commotion, grime and less desirable inhabitants of the streets surrounding them.

Today only a few of these Victorian Era shopping arcades survive and the best-known examples are those that have been restored to an approximation of their original form. Their modern advertising and marketing campaigns echo the discourse of the past and shoppers are invited to step back in time and encounter the bourgeois elegance of a stylish nineteenth-century retail past.

But were the arcades simply restricted spaces of aspiration and fashion for a privileged section of society, separated from the city around them? This work challenges this constructed ideal of the arcade as a rarified and exclusive shopping space and argues that this stereotype elides their complex, diverse, multilayered and sometimes uneasy histories.

Through an examination of the people and businesses that inhabited them, it contends that the arcades were significant sites of modernity within the Australian urban landscape. It argues that they were inextricably connected with the metropolitan life that surrounded them and that their histories constantly transgressed the stereotypes with which they were labelled.

Furthermore, this work not only seeks to tell the story of the arcades in the time during which they were constructed, but undertakes a more complex task. It shows that they are not simply relics of the nineteenth-century and a way to understand colonial metropolitan Australia. But it suggests that their subsequent histories rendered them an inextricable part of the urban fabric, reflecting the changes that occurred in Australian urban spaces throughout the twentieth century until today.

Ultimately, it seeks to address present day concerns through its exploration of past practices, events and experiences. To do this it has a threefold methodology and purpose, using theories of modernity, transnationalism and heritage in order to:

  • explore the history of the Australian city through the lens of the arcades
  • connect the local with the global in the history of these cities
  • contemplate the bearing that these histories have on contemporary heritage concerns

By problematising the idealised discourse surrounding the arcades both in the past and present, I will question the present day reification of the idealised restored heritage site – a reification that I argue increasingly places other, less idealised heritage sites in danger. Buildings such as Melbourne’s Palace Theatre, Eastern Arcade, Lonsdale House and other heritage buildings have been endangered or lost as they do not completely retain their original features. But many such sites nonetheless have historical layers that render them witness to their own multiple historical narratives and those of the city that surrounds them.

4 Comments

  1. Hey there Jo, great to hear about your research! Please feel free to contact me through my new contact page! I realised I didn’t have one set up!

  2. Hey Nicole,
    I’m a distant relative (cousin by marriage) Helen Macpherson Smith, who was
    married to Justice Schutt, who sentenced Colin Ross to hang for the murder of
    Alma Tirtschke. I was adding more Macphersons to the family tree when I stumbled
    across a reference to the Gun Alley murder. I used to work at Collin’s Place in the
    1980s and had no idea of this extraordinary history that weaves in with my ancestors,
    and my own 20th-21st century life. Too many synchronicities to mention.

    Thought I’d drop a comment to thank you very very much for depositing the fruits of
    your efforts in researching and developing this project on a free and easily accessible
    corner of the information highway.

    May the gawds of bearbrass bless your little cotton socks and pigeons not poop in
    your hat!

    1. Oh wow, thanks so much for your comment! I’m blushing 🙂

      Great to hear that you’re finding so much interesting information in your family history. This is why I myself love family history research and I find it also such a valuable resources.

      It truly does bring out these stories and synchronicities that weave in with the ‘bigger’ events of history – and puts real, ordinary people back into history where they belong.

      I’m currently working on the Brisbane arcades and this really weaves in the story of one man’s life that I’ve put together using diverse sources including family history! I’m really looking forward to sharing that soon.

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