On a fine November day the governor-general, Sir Charles Fergusson, opened the New Zealand and South Seas International Exhibition in Dunedin.
Such was the interest that the 1926 census incorrectly report a growth in the city’s population. By the time the exhibition closed in May 1926 it had attracted over 3.2 million visitors, more than double New Zealand’s total population at the time.
Dunedin already had a proud history of mounting international exhibitions. In 1865, prospering from the gold rushes of the early 1860s, it became the first New Zealand centre to host such an exhibition. It mounted another in 1889. Christchurch also hosted international exhibitions, in 1882 and 1906. The latter exhibition, sited in Hagley Park, was the largest held in New Zealand to that time. Architect Edmund Anscombe, who was credited with instigating Dunedin’s 1925 international exhibition, hoped to eclipse them all.
But while Christchurch had a ready site in the form of Hagley Park, the same could not be said for Dunedin. Lake Logan, the site eventually accepted by the exhibition’s directors, was ‘spacious, convenient in situation and picturesque in its setting’. It was also a lake. Only one-eighth of its area had been reclaimed, and more than mere reclamation was required to transform the site. In all, 25,000 loads of clay and 3000 loads of soil were deposited for the lawns and gardens; 2500 trees and shrubs and 12,000 herbaceous and bedding plants were planted, and 600 packets of seeds were sown.
If the creation of Logan Park was a spectacular feat, the exhibition buildings were no less impressive. Anscombe designed ‘a series of seven pavilions grouped on two sides by a Grand Court and converging by colonnaded passages towards a Festival Hall surmounted by a magnificent dome’. The buildings occupied approximately 16 acres (6½ ha). Visitors were able to tour almost the entire exhibition under cover. So exhaustive were the possibilities that many residents probably took up the option of a weekly or seasonal pass.
Among the wealth of entertainment options was the Second Battalion of the 93rd Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, and the immense exhibition choir. For light relief there was the amusement park, complete with 425-m scenic railway. The restaurant, tearooms and restrooms enabled visitors to take a break from the festivities.
The countries and provinces exhibiting took the opportunity to provide information on their key industries and sell themselves as tourist destinations. The international side was dominated by Britain and its colonies, with elaborate ‘courts’ set up by Australia, Canada and Fiji. Interestingly, Australia’s modest display on wines was outshone by ‘one of the finest ... displays ever made at any exhibition’ – on its canned fruits. Horticulture also featured in the provincial courts, with Otago taking the opportunity to provide samples of Central Otago fruit.
The exhibits mounted by the British and New Zealand governments were just as elaborate. Visitors to the British government pavilion were educated on the growth and means of defending the British Empire. New Zealand gave visitors an insight into every aspect of government service. Exhibits ranged from the Department of Agriculture’s demonstration plots to the Prisons Department’s display of the ‘well balanced round of work, education and recreation’ available to inmates.
It appears people never tired of the exhibition in the 24 weeks it was running – the closing Saturday had a record attendance of 83,935. It would be a long wait for the next exhibition on a similar scale: the Centennial Exhibition at Rongotai, Wellington, which ran from 8 November 1939 to 4 May 1940.
Image: scene from the exhibition (see this and more images of the exhibition on National Library website)