The smell of fish, the gleam of fresh vegetables, the chill outside the sheds… research shows the heart and soul of Melbourne’s iconic Queen Victoria Market is not in its bricks and mortar.
Weathering Melbourne’s infamously tempestuous climate is a test of endurance, but for the traders at the Queen Victoria Market this is just part of a job they love.
On hot days they jostle for space in the crowded sheds surrounded by the heady aroma of fresh fruit and vegetables while seafood glistens on beds of ice inside the deli.
On a cool day, you can see them rugged up against the wind, greeting customers with welcoming smiles as they hand over freshly baked bread and hot jam doughnuts.
“That’s what they do,” observed one regular customer. “That’s part of the market.”
One of city’s oldest and most beloved landmarks, the heritage-listed market is the subject of a large-scale renewal project initiated by the City of Melbourne to improve facilities for traders, customers and visitors.
While the precise shape of the renewal continues to be hotly debated, in a mission to ensure the market’s character is preserved the council commissioned RMIT’s Digital Ethnography Research Centre (DERC) to capture the intangible values that continue to attract hundreds of thousands of people every year.
Researchers used photography, video and audio to record the experiences of a range of people within the market precinct and gather the distinct experiences, flavours, voices and personalities that make it unique.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is the sense of community that stood out among both customers and traders as one of the market’s most important features, posing a unique challenge to the developers redesigning the site.
“I’ve got a good relationship with my customers,” explained one stallholder. “People are like ‘how do you know so much about them?’ I’m very much a people person so like to know about everything. So yeah it’s nice…”
Customers echoed this sentiment: “It's the personal interaction when here. I guess a sense of community almost that you don’t get when you go to the supermarket.”
Describing the trolley he had used to shop at the stalls for almost 25 years, another regular recalled memories of shopping with his young daughter.
“In fact the basket was wearing out the other day and I wasn’t able to buy a new one and they offered selling me a brand new trolley, but it’s the trolley that Meg rode round in when she was about three so I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of it.”
Tradition and routine emerged again and again among customers. “I’m a creature of habit and one of the things that I like about the market… is to always go to the same stall, pretty much. So this particular stall I go to get my mushrooms and another one where I get my fruit and another one where I get carrots.”
Lead researcher Dr Shanti Sumartojo said the report was commissioned in recognition of the long and vibrant history of the site and growing community interest in how this shaped its everyday use.
“In ethnographic research each person’s perspective is treated as unique and valuable, and in this context they are regarded as experts,” she said.
“By immersing ourselves in the life of the market alongside the research participants we were able to build up a rich perspective on what comprises and is valued about its unique atmosphere.”
According to the City of Melbourne, the Queen Victoria Market it is the largest, most concentrated, continually trading place reserved for small, independently operated businesses in Australia. It was formally accepted for inclusion onto the Victorian Heritage Register in 1989.
As plans for the renewal progress, preserving the essence of this beloved Melbourne landmark in order to ensure its longevity for future generations is central to the conversation.
“The first building I walked through was the meat market and I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere in the world, and I’ve travelled a bit in my life,” said one visitor of their first experience at the market.
“One stall after the next of absolutely beautiful meats, fishes, and then I went into some of the specialty areas, the bakery, the cheese mongers and then out here into the vegetable stalls, which I’ve never seen so much produce in one place.”
Story: Grace Taylor
Photos: Nicholas Walton-Healey, PhD candidate in RMIT's School of Media and Communication and contributor to the report