FEW would appreciate the link between Ballarat's elegant Mechanics' Institute and the Capital Building in Washington, seat of the U.S. Congress.
Sitting atop both is the Roman goddess Minerva, inert yet so very symbolic of the original ideals which drove the establishment of each structure.
Virgin goddess of poetry, medicine, crafts, commerce and magic, Minerva evoked wisdom in the eyes of 18th and 19th century architects and educators who represented her image in statuary, seals and in patronage.
Ballarat's Minerva watches over Sturt Street still, an unblinking witness to the scenes below and the rises and falls of life in the Mechanics' Institute itself.
With restoration of this iconic building virtually complete, it remains to be seen whether the community will embrace its facilities after such a long and steady decline in membership and usage. Fortunately, there is an abundance of ideas and support.
"My very first memory of Ballarat as a child is coming through the Arch of Victory, down Sturt Street and my sister saying 'have a look at the statue on that building', says Councillor Samantha McIntosh, chair of the City's Heritage Advisory Committee.
"Of course it was Minerva. A lot of that brilliant architecture goes not so much unnoticed, but we do need to draw people's attention to it.
"We've seen a great change in the way the Mechanics' Institute is used. For example, it's now available for weddings and for different community groups to hire parts of the facility. I think there's a broad opportunity for use by a much fuller part of our community than in the past."
Long before compulsory education and government-funded libraries, mechanics' institutes enabled young men — and to a much lesser extent young women — to access books, newspapers, journals and lectures. The buildings themselves became a social hub. Art classes were held, so too exhibitions, along with grand fundraising events and, later, dances, theatre and film screenings.
Historians have estimated that over 1200 mechanics' institutes have existed in Victoria alone since the Melbourne Athenaeum — the very first — was established in 1839. It is an extraordinary number, not to mention legacy.
Most had libraries, or at the very least carried reference materials. The Ballarat Mechanics' Institute (BMI) is one of just ten such entities which still offers a working library for members.
"It was a grand structure built along the lines of the glory days of Ballarat, with different levels and different rooms," says writer and historian and current BMI president, Jill Blee.
"In my view, it went into decline when the board opted to lease out various sections. For example, leasing out the hall to a cinema operator meant no more concerts or lectures. The rent meant income, of course, but in the long term it didn't compensate for the building's deterioration and the need for maintenance."
That need has been addressed. With significant funding from state and federal governments, the City of Ballarat, trusts and benefactors and countless hours of volunteer labour, the massive task of restoring the building to its former glory has been undertaken.
But the question remains: here is the building, now where are the people?
Blee suggests patronage will return in time and there are some historical legacies to overcome. She is only the third female president of the BMI since its inception in 1859.
This, in part, is not surprising; women played little or no part in the Institute's early proceedings (with the exception of organising fundraising activities).
Even the 'women's section' of the lending library had been partitioned off by concerned male board members. Females were only granted full access to rights and membership in 1951.
Reading between the lines, however, there is more than a hint of suspicion that a certain exclusivity has acted as a barrier to wider embracement of the BMI by the Ballarat community at large.
"Even up until recently," says Blee, "having women on the board was a token representation. That patriarchal sentiment, even at board level, is there all the time. Over the years, the Institute has been run by a very small handful of powerful men. Even though there has always been a board, the decisions were effectively made by this handful and then rubber-stamped by the board.
"It also had the connotation of being a Protestant institution. When I launched my third book here, I brought my mother along. She grew up in Ballarat; in fact she's third generation. We're toddling up the passageway and she's leaned in close and said 'I've never been in here before'.
And I said 'why not?' and she told me 'oh Catholics didn't go in here'. Most of the founding fathers and successive boards were not Catholic."
Various other factors contributed to the BMI's fall in popularity. The School of Mines attracted the trades' students, the Art Gallery held fine art and design classes and the burgeoning grammar and state schools removed the need for the Institute to provide basic education. Come the 1950s, as library membership plummeted, the upstairs hall remained popular with children for Saturday afternoon movie matinees but the adults — wisely — sought out the other purpose-built and more comfortable cinemas. By the 1990s, even the movie screenings had ceased.
From the council's perspective, it remains paramount in both a heritage and cultural sense that institutions like the BMI not only survive, but flourish.
"While its role has changed over time," says McIntosh, "it still provides education and information to the community and it is important council continues to provide support. And of course anything that activates an old building helps in the restoration of such an important part of our city. We respect its history and we cherish its history.
"And, naturally, there are many groups interested in the building's future. There are a number of different partnerships that are carried out through council forums, such as conversations between Her Majesty's, South Street, various boards and other community groups."
"The BMI is here today as a community and cultural centre," says Blee.
"We want to create an uplifting, entertaining and educational environment. We'll have an Australiana section, plus a modern Australian writing section. We'd love to have a writer-in-residence here, increase the membership and provide activities that would suit a broader membership than we have now. We have such wonderful material here, going back to the 19th and early 20th centuries, some of it very valuable. They all tell a story as to what people in Ballarat were reading back then."
Determined to continue the influence of esteemed Ballarat identities like Humffray, Learmonth, Sutton, Brazenor, Spielvogel and Withers, all of whom served the BMI with distinction, Blee and her board and volunteers have the energy and skills — and some funding — to make it work. Time will tell if they can succeed
Minerva, of course, will be guiding them.