Bennelong Point is famous as the home of the Opera House. Less well known are the structures that stood on the site before Jørn Utzon’s iconic building was formally opened in 1973: tram depot; a naval fort; a hut built by Governor Phillip for prominent Aboriginal man Bennelong; a lime kiln that made bricks for the colony’s first buildings; and middens formed from oyster shells discarded by local Aboriginal people.

Bennelong Point offers a neat example of how one site can reflect the way the city has grown and developed. It also encapsulates the overarching theme of Demolished Sydney, a new Sydney Museum exhibition that uses film, photography, objects and oral histories to examine the evolution of the city through the buildings it has lost.

Thirteen sites are featured in the exhibition, each telling a tale of progress in the city. The completion of Fort Denison in 1857 rendered Francis Greenway’s sandstone fort obsolete. The Fort Macquarie Tram Depot was no longer used by 1955; the tram network was decommissioned, and people turned to cars and buses.

“Sometimes the land is worth more without the building on it,” says Dr Teffer. “It’s harder to redevelop an old building than to build a new building.” This was the fate of the State Office Block, a 30-year-old skyscraper designed by Ken Woolley that proved too difficult to adapt for 21st-century use; the modernist tower was demolished in 1998. “It was still a good building, it had beautiful finishes and it was very well designed, but it was a difficult building to readapt for technology,” says Dr Teffer. Today the 41-storey Aurora Place occupies the Macquarie Street site.

A building might be so derelict it is beyond use, as was the case with the Pyrmont Incinerator (now the site of the Meriton Apartments). Or a business may fail to turn a profit, as happened with the Australia Hotel. Once Sydney’s premier hotel, by the 1970s the historic building was considered “old and fusty”, says Dr Teffer, and it couldn’t compete with the new, Las Vegas-style hotels springing up in the CBD. In 1971 it was demolished – along with the adjacent Theatre Royale and Rowe Street, a bohemian laneway that ran between Pitt and Castlereagh Streets – to make way for Harry Seidler’s modernist landmark, the MLC Centre.

The exhibition’s story of change is particularly relevant to Sydney today. Nineteen buildings in the CBD face demolition before construction begins on the Sydney Metro rail link in 2018. Among those slated to go are 7 Elizabeth, Sydney’s last-remaining residential Art Deco building, and 39 Martin Place, the home of Tiffany & Co. While the buildings in Demolished Sydney were razed using wrecking balls and bulldozers, today demolition is much more discreet. Sophisticated technology, including robots, will quietly dismantle the buildings behind a screen of scaffolding.

Losing buildings is part of the “give and take” of urban renewal, says Dr Teffer. “The city is in a constant state of becoming, it’s got to keep moving into the future.”

“Hopefully the exhibition will help people to think about what we’ve lost and what we’ve gained, and what we want to hang on to,” she says.

Demolished Sydney is showing at Museum of Sydney until April 17, 2017.

sydneylivingmuseums.com.au/exhibitions/demolished-sydney