Future past: Australia at Expo 67

Monday, 7 December 2020

Talking chairs, a floating glass building and a self-driving railway that whisked 50 million people above the rooftops of 64 nations. Step into the past (or was it the future?) at Expo 67 in Montreal.

The National Archives has a rich collection of records relating to Australia’s involvement in world expositions, or ‘expos’.

Held every few years, world expos are a chance for participating nations to showcase their advances and achievements. The expo-related records in our collection are a journey into the ways Australia presented itself to the world through innovative design and technologies.

The future comes to Montreal

Held in Montreal, Canada, the 1967 expo ran for 6 months, with 50 million visitors delighting in the displays of 64 participating nations.

Considered one of the most successful 20th century expositions, Expo 67 captured the mood of the time: post-war optimism combined with the excitement of the space race.

Each nation used specially designed pavilions to show off their modernity through avant-garde architecture. A raised, autonomous ‘minirail’ train offered visitors the best view of these futuristic buildings, transporting them above the expo and past the extraordinary Australian pavilion.

Space-age design

Australia had just became the third nation, behind Russia and the USA, to launch a satellite into orbit. Its pavilion at Expo 67 presented us as a sophisticated and significant player in the space arena and highlighted our other accomplishments in science, fine arts, exploration, agriculture and industry.  

The pavilion was designed by government architect James Maccormick. From the outside it was a typical modernist structure that resembled a floating glass box.

Four individual roofs funnelled into the building to form gothic-like piers of Tasmanian blackwood. Inside, the piers reached up to ribbed vaulted archways, emphasising a circular motif that carried throughout the building, right down to the internal displays.

Acclaimed Australian architect Robin Boyd designed the internal spaces and exhibits. Underpinned by a space-age aesthetic, Boyd’s designs included curved white display stands with clear plastic domes that mimicked a flying saucer. Scattered throughout the pavilion, these displays featured typically Australian items including models of Canberra, the Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Scheme and the radio telescope at Parkes – the world’s largest fully steerable dish telescope at the time.

Avant-garde talking chairs designed by Grant and Mary Featherston were grouped strategically around each display. Once seated, visitors enjoyed verbal explanations of the exhibits from noted Australians, delivered through speakers hidden in the wing-backed headrest.

The Australia Pavilion at Expo 67 presented Australia as a sophisticated and innovative nation. The country’s leading role in new technologies was explained through the informative displays, and pavilion’s modernist, space-inspired aesthetic reinforced the message that Australia was a nation looking to the future.

See more Expo 67 photos from our collection on Flickr.

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