Australia on the international Expo stage since 1880

Celebrating 140 years of Australian participation in International Expos 

As Expo 2020 Dubai draws ever closer, we take a look back at Australia's participation in Expos over the last 140 years. 


Australian involvement with international expos had a very grand start in 1880 when the then Colony of Victoria hosted Australia’s first Expo in the now World Heritage-listed Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne

Not only did the exhibition result in the creation of one of Australia's best-loved buildings, but over the course of the seven months that the Exhibition was open, around 1.3 million visitors attended – particularly remarkable given Australia's population at the time was only 2.2 million. 

Like all Expos, a key part of the event was to showcase the industrial and trade capabilities of the 33 participating nations. The Expo resulted in the creation of direct trade relations for Australia with Germany, France, Belgium and the USA. 

20th century Expos 

Despite a strong start, the ensuing decades saw Australia struggle to establish its new post-colonial identity following Federation in 1901.[1]

However, the 1939 New York Exhibition proved a critical turning point. Designed by Sydney architects Stephenson and Turner, in partnership with leading designer Douglas Annand, the 1939 Australian Pavilion brought together leading Australian modernists and set a new tone for future Australian Pavilions.[2]

The exhibition also proved popular with visitors. Melbourne's Argus newspaper reported at the time that more than 600,000 people visited the Australian Pavilion, where they were drawn to its ‘star attraction’ the illu-vision device. This showed eight modelled scenes of Australian life in dioramic form, accompanied by a continuous commentary delivered by an electric system.[3] Sydney’s Museum of Applied Sciences holds a collection of photographs from this important exhibition.

Following on from the US Expo in 1939, Australia participated in World Expos in Montreal (1967) and Osaka (1970).

Australia hosts Expo 88

However, its next significant involvement was when the Australian city of Brisbane played host to a specialised international expo in 1988.

Held between April and October 1988, 36 nations participated in Expo 88, attracting 18.6 million visitors. The event saw the significant redevelopment of the former industrial area of Brisbane's South Bank. Its theme, ‘Leisure in the age of Technology', was designed to demonstrate how leisure was pursued in different cultures.

Alongside economic and trade investment outcomes, Expo 88 provided the opportunity to promote Australia’s relaxed, outdoor lifestyle and offered a broad range of outdoor entertainment and dining options in lush tropical gardens, with tent-shaped “sun sails” to protect visitors from the Queensland heat.

Thirty years have passed since Expo 88. Australia’s national broadcaster, the ABC reflects on Brisbane’s “coming of age” through the memories of those who were there here.

Recent Australian participation in international Expos

Key to understanding the purpose of Australia’s participation in international Expos is the opportunity they provide to build trade and economic partnerships, not just with the host country but with participating nations.

While this central principle has remained true over Australia's nearly 140-year involvement in Expos, the type of industries and objectives Australia chooses to profile have changed as the Australian economy has grown and matured.

Australia's early participation focussed on showcasing its agricultural and primary resources sectors. However, in recent decades, attention has shifted towards technology and services innovations.

Three of the biggest World Expos that Australia has recently participated in have all been held in Asia; Aichi in Japan (2005), Shanghai in China (2010) and a specialised expo in Yeosu in Korea (2012). Through its involvement in these Expos, the Australian Government has sought to promote key new technologies in sectors such as: tourism; education; agribusiness; food and wine; information and communications; environmental; health; and energy and natural resources.

Over the course of these three Expos, a combined 13.5 million visitors to Australia’s pavilions had the opportunity to learn about Australia’s diversity, its industry capabilities and trade, education and tourism opportunities.

Expo 2020 Dubai

Expo 2020 Dubai is the first World Expo to be held in the Middle East and is anticipated to be one of the most well attended in history, with an expected 25 million visitors. More than 190 countries have committed to participate.

As a participant, Australia will be working to showcase the best it has to offer to ultimately enhance its significant trade and investment relationships globally and to challenge perceptions.

Australia’s Commissioner General for Expo 2020 Dubai, Justin McGowan said Expo 2020 would provide a platform for showcasing Australia’s rich cultural diversity, ingenuity and innovation to a global audience.

“Participation in Expo 2020 Dubai will enable us to highlight the capabilities of Australian business and industry, our highly skilled workforce and our world-class research and education and training institutions, to assist in expanding export markets for Australian goods and services and attracting investment,” Mr McGowan said.



[1] Goad, Phillip, 1999 ‘Collusions of Modernity Australian Pavilions in New York and Wellington 1939’, The Journal of Architectural Historians, Australia and New Zealand. Edition 10 p 22-45

[2] Ann Stephen and Philip Goad, 2008 ‘Electric Signs and Spectacles’ in ‘Modern Times: the untold story of modernism in Australia’, Miegunyah Press, Melbourne

[3] 1939, ‘Australia at World’s Fair’ The Argus, 11 July 1939, page 9.

Image credit: National Gallery of Australia, Russell Roberts, Australian Pavillion, New York World's Fair 1939-1940 gelatin silver photograph.