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The Melbourne Athenaeum

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by Courtney Symes (subscribe)
Courtney is a freelance fashion, art and design writer and content creator for - an online boutique specialising in quality gifts for men. Read more of Courtney’s work at
Published April 18th 2011

A hub of art and culture, the Melbourne Athenaeum has remained an iconic Melbourne feature since its foundation in 1839. The original rendered two-storey building was built to house Melbourne's first Mechanics' Institution as well as a Hall for Council meetings, a library and a reading room. The Athenaeum has undergone many changes along the way and previously contained a museum, theatre, cinema, gallery and library. The current building now consists of three levels with a classical façade and is home to the Athenaeum Theatre, Ticketmaster, Comedy Club, Bistro D'Orsay, the Opal Gallery and the Athenaeum Library.

A new exhibition, 'The Melbourne Athenaeum in Pictures,' consists of a collection of historic images and memorabilia to document and celebrate the history of this magnificent building. Many renowned performers and artists, such as Dame Nellie Melba, Barry Humphries, Sir Laurence Olivier, Arthur Boyd and Rupert Bunny (among many) have appeared at the Athenaeum in numerous exhibitions and shows.

The Athenaeum has also had the privilege of screening several landmark films, including the world's first feature film, The Story of the Kelly Gang in 1906 and The Jazz Singer which was the first 'talkie' (film with sound) in 1929.

The Melbourne Athenaeum Library has been in existence since 1839 and currently houses approximately 50,000 volumes. You can become a Melbourne Athenaeum Library member for $75 ($70 concession) per year. Membership will afford you benefits such as exclusive invitations to book launches, author talks, book clubs and other special functions as well as free computer access. Members are even welcome to bring in their own lunch and take advantage of complimentary tea and coffee making facilities - not bad considering the cost is roughly the same as buying a couple of new books each year. They even cater to non-Melbourne based members, offering a postal membership service.

To commemorate the Melbourne Athenaeum's 170 year history a journal, The Melbourne Athenaeum 170 years - A journal of the history of a Melbourne institution has been produced. This journal includes a memoir and record of playwright Ray Lawler's experiences of the Athenaeum, a pictorial history of the building and contributions from archivist, Margaret Bowman. The City of Melbourne's Arts Grant program, the Lord Mayor's Charitable Foundation and the Public Records Office have provided funding to make this publication possible. The journal can be purchased for $29.95 ($19.95 for members or free for new Library members when they join).

There are several interesting Author talks coming up at the Athenaeum Library, including Shelley Meagher's 'Kubla Khan' and the Coleridge Way - An Armchair Literary Walk in Somerset. Shelley is a Melbourne based writer and this talk will focus on the significance of the Somerset landscapes in Coleridge's poetry on Wednesday 4 May, 5.30pm. Free for members and $5 for non-members.

From landscape and poetry to food and sustainability, writer and editor Hilary McNevin will host a Food talk on Wednesday 15 June at 5.30pm. Hilary will discuss our relationship and enjoyment of food, wine and cooking, whilst taking sustainability into consideration. Hilary is also the author of the blog, Food With Thought.

The devastatingly sudden death of Maggie Mackellar's husband, shortly followed by the death of her mother from cancer prompted her poignant memoir, When It Rains. A story of love, loss and the challenge of rebuilding her life is described by the Sydney Morning Herald as "Wrenching and eloquent". Maggie will visit the Athenaeum in July (exact date TBC) to discuss her incredible book.

Visiting the Melbourne Athenaeum is a worthwhile activity, especially when combined with a show or a few moments looking at 'The Melbourne Athenaeum in Pictures' exhibition. Visitors will be fascinated by the building's history and will appreciate the care that has been bestowed on this majestic building, ensuring that one of Melbourne's greatest treasures will be around for many years to come.
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Why? A magnificent building with an impressive history
When: Anytime you want take in a show, or just pop your head in for a look
Where: 188 Collins St, Melbourne
Cost: Free to look inside. Cost for shows varies.
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