New technology, old culture

The CBD’s original cultural heart, the Athenaeum in Collins St, is still beating strongly after 175 years, with a spectacular celebratory performance at White Night on February 21.

Three giant inflatable statues of the goddess Athena erected on its verandah were illuminated and enriched with imagery from the Athenaeum’s complex journey which started in 1839.

According to business manager Sue Westwood, the Athenaeum continues to serve the community, although time and technology challenge its relevance.

“Melbourne has grown enormously and new and exciting cultural institutions have emerged and evolved,” Ms Westwood said.

“But, today, there is a new local community in the CBD which we hope will connect strongly with the Athenaeum. We see ourselves very much as a community hub.”

The organisation has about 800 members, significantly less than the 7500-strong membership during the 1950s when members would return and select library books during interval at the cinema.

The organisation hasn’t always been known as the Athenaeum.

It started life as Melbourne’s mechanics institute, a popular 19th-century phenomenon based on the broad idea that an educated populace would result in a more civilised society.

The Athenaeum building itself was one of the first in Melbourne.

And, again showing that the more things change, the more they stay the same, rocketing CBD land values allowed the first committee to purchase two blocks of land in 1840 and, by 1842, erect a grand building on one block from the proceeds of the sale of the other.

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