Garden Palace, a building three times the size of Sydney’s QVB, used to dominate the Botanic Gardens skyline until it mysteriously went up in smoke one September night.

That was in 1882, just three years after it was built. More distressing than the loss of the Garden Palace, though, was losing the artefacts inside – Indigenous shields, spears and other weapons. All that remained was a rudimentary list, safe in the Australian Museum, of the items.

It was this tragedy (discovered while researching his family history) that inspired Sydney-based Wiradjuri-Kamilaroi artist Jonathan Jones. He had an idea for an artwork reminding people what was lost and celebrating Indigenous culture.

The artist entered his work into the 2014 Kaldor Public Art Projects competition called Your Very Good Idea, to celebrate its 45th anniversary. Australian artists were encouraged to devise a site-specific, temporary art project that would inspire the public.

From 160 applications Jones was selected by an international jury to develop his concept, barrangal dyara (skin and bones).

“Jonathan was the unanimous winner, it was such an intriguing concept,” says Kaldor’s founder, John Kaldor. “How could a building [that huge] be totally forgotten; and if we could forget something that enormous, what else have we forgotten? And that’s one of Jonathan’s concepts, recognising history pre-colonisation, stretching back 60,000 years.”

Skin and bones will involve 15,000 custom-made gypsum (plaster) shields recreating the 20,000-square-metre Garden Palace footprint on the lawn between the Conservatory and Shakespeare Place. Jones has also created a soundscape of voices he recorded from eight NSW language groups whose communities lost artefacts. Their voices will be triggered by movement as the audience walks through the exhibition.

“As you walk to different parts of the garden the soundscape voices – some children, some adults – will recall the names of the objects and bring them back to life,” says Kaldor. “I find that extraordinarily moving,”

The area where the Garden Palace’s dome once stood has been replanted with native kangaroo grass, disrupting the Botanical Garden’s mainly European garden to reflect the area’s original vegetation.

Commissioned by Sir Henry Parkes, the Garden Palace was built in 1879, a time of post-gold-rush prosperity when Sydney was trying to shift its image away from its convict past into that of a growing, cosmopolitan city.

Sydney’s population of 80,000 swelled to one million as visitors flocked to the Garden Palace’s year-long International Exhibition, which showed off not only the country’s gold, wheat and wool, but a collection of Indigenous objects collected over the preceding century. It was designed to prove how far Sydney had come from its “primitive” past.

After the International Exhibition’s successful 185-day run, the ethnographic collection was stored in the building.

By retelling the story, Jones is making a new record of this history that was lost. “This is correcting history, if you like, and this is Jonathan’s genius,” says Kaldor.

A comprehensive, free public program around Jones’s work will run over 17 days. The centre piece of the program is a new work by Bangarra Dance Theatre artistic director Stephen Page, which responds to the Garden Palace fire. There will be a free performance of the work in the Botanic Gardens exactly 134 years after the September 22 fire, accompanying a full day’s line-up of events.

Other highlights include Echoes of the Garden Palace, a new instrumental and vocal work by students of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music inspired by the 19th century building and Jones’s artwork. There will be daily talks with Jones, and a lecture series with guests including Sydney Festival director Wesley Enoch and gastronomer Jacqui Newling, who will discuss the food and culinary experiences of the Garden Palace.

Jonathan Jones’s barrangal dyara (skin and bones) runs from September 17 to October 3 in Sydney’s Botanic Gardens, and is open from 10am to sunset. Bangarra will give a free performance on September 22.

kaldorartprojects.org.au