Chinatown Visitor Centre

Chinatown Visitor Centre

History of the Museum and its building

The Museum of Chinese Australian History was established in 1985 as a community-run, not-for-profit national institution to document, preserve, collect and research the history and culture of Chinese Australians and their descendants.

The Museum is housed in a late nineteenth century five-level warehouse in the middle of Melbourne’s Chinatown. The warehouse was built in 1890 by the Cohen Bros who were furniture manufacturers. They had their showrooms in the building adjacent to the Museum facing onto Lonsdale Street and used this building as a factory to make furniture and also a storeroom. We don’t know for certain whether they employed Chinese furniture makers in their business but it is likely that they did. They certainly had business dealings with Chinese furniture makers. Descendants of the Cohen family trace the family’s love of preserved ginger back to gifts of preserved ginger given to the original Cohen brothers back in the 1890s!

After the Cohen Bros moved out, the building was occupied by a range of businesses including: Hamodava Tea Co, Kellow Motor Co and a taxi cab company. It was eventually purchased by Her Majesty’s theatre and was used for the storage of sets and costumes. During the hey-day of musical extravaganzas the Museum building was also used as change rooms for the large choruses that were a part of these shows. There used to be a door connecting the Museum and the theatre on the top floor.

The building was acquired by the Victorian government from Her Majesty’s in 1985 and is rented by the Museum for a nominal fee. When it opened its doors to the public in November 1985 it had no foundation collection and only three levels of the building had been renovated – basement, ground and first floors. The second floor was renovated in 1987 and the third floor along with the rest of the building in 1995. In 2010 renovations were made to the ground and first floors.