There’s a mystery surrounding the history of Fitzroy Gardens. What started as a Google image search brought to life a question that has laid dormant for 90 years: where did all the statues go?

Academic in art, architecture and design, Dr Monique Webber of The University of Melbourne describes her uncovering of the mystery as “a complete instance of digital serendipity”. While researching another project she searched for pictures of Diana and The Hounds, a sculpture from 1940 that currently sits outside the conservatory in Fitzroy Gardens. Then she saw something unexpected.

“An archival photo came up with a sculpture that I knew wasn’t there anymore,” Webber says. Her curiosity piqued, the question of what happened to this mystery artwork kicked off a yearlong journey that saw her dig into archives both in Melbourne and around the world.

Ultimately, Dr Webber learned that 60 sculptures were removed in the 1930s, almost overnight, as a result of what she says was a showdown between different factions of the art world and the government. Tragically, the removed statues were destroyed, the only exception being two urns.

“They’re broken but they seem to be the only bits that are left,” she says.

Dr Webber will be presenting her findings via a limited-season walking tour of the gardens. Without too many spoilers, what she uncovered points to a fascinating moment in Melbourne’s history involving a map from the mid-1860s, and a surprising disagreement between two prominent artists. It all feeds back into Melbourne trying to forge its own independent identity.

“Even though the statues are gone, we’re going to be revisiting the spaces where they were,” Dr Webber says. “There are incredible images from the State Library of Victoria collection where you can actually stand at particular spots in the gardens and hold the image and really compare how it was at the time and how it is now.

“Being a tour of memory as well as a tour of place offers the opportunity to reflect on how Melbourne has changed to create the contemporary city, as well as to uncover its past.”

The Fitzroy Gardens Walking Tour is happening on September 22 and 26. The tour is free, but bookings are required.