Joanne Scott
Ross Laurie

Since 1876 the Brisbane Exhibition – or Ekka, as it is affectionately known today – has enticed visitors from across Queensland and beyond with the promise of a combination of sights, sounds, tastes and sensations available only at the showgrounds. Across more than thirteen decades it has celebrated Queensland’s achievements, especially in primary industries; educated and entertained the public; and served as a showroom and marketplace.

One of Australia’s premier annual agricultural shows and Queensland’s largest annual event, the Exhibition has relied above all on the visual impact of an almost overwhelming ‘phantasmagoria of abundance’, the sheer quantity and diversity of exhibits proclaiming Queensland as a place of limitless wealth and opportunity according to Queensland country life, August 1910. From the spectacles of the main ring through the extraordinary concoctions of the district exhibits to the seemingly endless rows of cattle, horses, poultry and paintings, the Exhibition embodies the theme of cornucopia.

Getting started

The first show was a celebration of the colony for the colony, a declaration that Queensland could proudly and deservedly take its place among the other Australian colonies. For local citizens eager to promote themselves and their vision of a prosperous society with boundless potential, it was the most important event since Queensland’s separation from New South Wales in 1859. Unlike other local agricultural shows, the Brisbane Exhibition sought to represent the entire settler society, geographically, economically and even culturally. In 1876 some 1700 exhibits in more than 650 classes represented achievements in livestock, agriculture, mining, manufacturing, art and education. Everything found favour with the enthusiastic visitors who were equally delighted by the parades of livestock, the spectacle of mining equipment in action, displays of delicately worked embroidery and the nightly entertainment in the main building. Stained glass windows, dugong meat, artificial limbs and a pair of alpacas all attracted admiring comments.

Representing Queensland

From the outset, the Exhibition offered a rich portrait of Queensland, infused by themes of progress, competition, optimism and pride. It was variously described as ‘a pageant of prosperity and a triumph of achievement’, ‘an eloquent testimony to the virility of Queensland’ and ‘a panorama of the Queensland way of life’. The impact of drought, Depression and world wars; the development of new industries and technologies; and changes in Queenslanders’ understanding of themselves and the world have all been refracted – to a greater or lesser degree – through the lens of the Ekka.

Even in the worst of years, the show has presented the best of Queensland, defying environmental and economic disasters. It has consistently celebrated the importance of rural people and their endeavours to the larger community – the theme of ‘the country comes to town’ remains at the heart of the Exhibition, apparently impervious to broader demographic and economic changes. From the grand parade to the rides and games of sideshow alley, the show offers visitors an opportunity to reflect on their community’s values, aspirations and achievements. The Ekka’s efforts to provide a complete portrait of Queensland have never been entirely successful – in the nineteenth century, for example, Indigenous people were almost entirely absent from the show which celebrated the British colonialist, capitalist enterprise while ignoring the often violent processes of dispossession that underpinned that enterprise. Nevertheless, the show has probably come closer than any other event to a comprehensive depiction of the state.  According to the Queenslander, 15 August 1908, ’It was indeed an impressive and thought compelling sight, this Queensland in miniature’.

Creating a tradition

Both an exemplar and a creator of traditions, the show has long since become embedded within the community’s annual rhythms. Held on the same site and usually at the same time of the year, August, the Exhibition has been cancelled on only two occasions – in 1919 during the global influenza pandemic and in 1942 when organisers decided that ‘the general War effort would be promoted by the with-holding of our organisation of a Royal National Show this year’. From the first show which attracted ‘a larger number than was ever before brought together’ in the colony to the shows of the early twenty-first century which typically attract up to 30,000 exhibits and half a million visitors, the Brisbane Exhibition has been a major event in every year that it has been held.

While the Exhibition seeks to map Queensland and its achievements, the show and the showgrounds have become part of the cultural map of generations of Queenslanders. In 1875, one of the most important decisions made by the newly established National Agricultural and Industrial Association of Queensland was where to hold the first Exhibition. As recorded in the Annual meeting, 3 November 1876, it leased five hectares of land at Bowen Park, explaining that the site’s ‘accessibility from the city, its available area for future extension, its adaptability for natural drainage, and ... the beauty of its position in a picturesque point of view, seemed pre-eminently to fit it for the purposes required’. Almost as soon as the first show had finished, a seemingly endless cycle of extensions and improvements was under way. The showgrounds and their surrounds have undergone dramatic changes – by 1970 the grounds occupied over 22 hectares. In a state better known for its commitment to economic development than to heritage preservation, however, and in a city that has undergone major architectural change across the past half-century, the Exhibition is one of the few inner-city or near inner-city sites that appears relatively unchanged, a situation that may change with the redevelopment of the showgrounds.

The show provides a framework within which individuals, families and organisations add to their own traditions while participating in a defining community event. Every Queensland family, it seems, has at least one Ekka story. Older generations, with fond memories of childhood excursions, induct younger family members into the delights of the Exhibition, retracing their steps along the paths, through the pavilions and up the stairs of the grandstands. Individuals proudly declare that they have never missed a single show in forty or fifty or even sixty years. Exhibitors, stewards, councillors and long-time show-goers look forward to a future that includes the annual show. In his first year as a councillor at the show Michael Grieve stated in 2007, ‘I love the tradition’. In the twenty-first century, the Brisbane Exhibition is still, according to its advocates, ‘Queensland’s most loved and anticipated annual event’, a cultural icon and an expression of what it means to be a Queenslander.

References and Further reading (Note)

Joanne Scott and Ross Laurie, Showtime: a history of the Brisbane Exhibition, St Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 2008

References and Further reading (Note)

Joanne Scott and Ross Laurie, ‘When the country comes to town: encounters at a metropolitan agricultural show’, History Australia, 7/2, 2010

References and Further reading (Note)

National Agricultural and Industrial Association of Queensland collection, John Oxley Library, Queensland

References and Further reading (Note)

Royal National Agricultural and Industrial Association of Queensland archives, Brisbane

References and Further reading (Note)

Royal National Agricultural and Industrial Association of Queensland website,