News

Museum building celebrates 150 years

By Simon Ruppert

This month marks the 150th anniversary of the construction of the Benalla Mechanics’ Institute building, now housing the Benalla Costume and Kelly Museum.

The original building, completed at the end of 1869, which lies at the southern end of the museum, was 15m by 7m.

It was opened with much ceremony in January 1870.

In 1882 the building was extended with the addition of two rooms and a passage, all of which still exist.

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Mechanics’ Institutes began in 1799 in Glasgow with a series of lectures for ordinary workers.

This was the original "adult education" and the idea quickly caught on throughout Great Britain and its colonies.

Though proceeding with the best of intentions, it was found that few workers took up the opportunity to further their education: they were either too tired to attend lectures after a day’s hard work, or they were insufficiently educated to be able to understand and learn from the lectures.

In due course, most Mechanics’ Institutes became town libraries or halls for social activities.

This was the case in Benalla until 1926 when the Memorial Hall was constructed, the original building having been deemed too small for purpose.

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Once the library was moved, the Mechanics’ Institute building was first occupied by the Lands Department and later the regional headquarters of the Country Roads Board.

When that body moved to new offices in Clarke St in 1963 the site was purchased by the City of Benalla.

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Despite various proposals for the use or demolition of the building, in 1967 it became the headquarters of the Benalla Historical Society, and the site for the Costume and Pioneer Museum, subsequently the Costume and Kelly Museum.

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Various extensions to the original building have since been carried out beginning in 1988, in order to expand the museum’s display areas, increase the storage space, and to house the research room and costume work room.

Some 30 years ago, the foyer area was taken over and occupied by the Visitor Information Centre and a small shop selling craft items.

This enabled the museum to be open every day during normal working hours.

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At present, steps are being taken, and finance sought, to make a further extension to the building in order to increase the area of the storage and research rooms.

The original building now carries a National Trust classification and a significant number of books from the Institute library are still to be found in original bookcases.

At present they are not on display, but it is intended this situation will be changed once the storage space has been expanded.

The grand old building has seen many changes during the years, but with careful planning it is hoped that it will continue to provide an excellent facility for the display of the Historical Society’s treasures.