Fourteen thousand (or is it fifteen thousand) white gypsum shields litter Sydney’s Royal Botanic Garden for the next two and a half weeks. When seen them from the air, the perimeter of the once-upon-a-time Garden Palace can be seen “ itself the size of two football fields, it burnt down in 1882. The shields are intended to represent the detritus of that mighty disaster.

The Garden Palace. I see quizzical brows! You’ve heard of the Crystal Palace, which did pretty much the same thing in London. But you were unaware that the Botanic Garden gates on Macquarie Street “ sandstone pillars with a suggestion of the dome which was the sixth largest in the world when it rose over a statue of Queen Victoria in the centre of the Palace, just three years and five days before the fire “ are all that remain of this mighty relic of Empire.

For, of course, the colony of New South Wales was firmly part of the imperial view that a century after ‘settlement’ (or was it an invasion?), the achievement of their imported civilisation justified a mighty celebration “ proof that Europeans had indeed pioneered and tamed this land.

So “ why shields to mark this tragedy today? Surely they were proof only of the savage condition in which those pioneers had found the Great Southern Land. Indeed, a report for the Exhibition roundly declared, The native races are very few, and are dying out. Well, that’s not the view that Jonathan Jones, the Kamilaroi/Wiradjuri artist who, two years ago tossed a fairly brief concept into a competition by Kaldor Public Art Projects and came out the winner against 160 other Aussie artists. For JJ, those shields “ in the four designs of Australia’s South East (Sydney/east coast, western NSW, Victoria and the Lower Murray) “ are living proof of the thousand or so Indigenous artefacts that had gone up in flames in the Palace in 1882, the complete Aboriginal collection of the Australian Museum to that time.

In many ways, the origins of this Project lay 20 years ago when JJ had gone into the Australian Museum to trace his own heritage and was told none existed.

Jonathon’s idea was so different, justified John Kaldor today, before going on to admit that, when fleshed out, it turned out to be larger than I ever imagined, and was the most costly of 31 such Projects to date – even more than Christo’s famous Wrapping of Little Bay, his first. Fortunately, this major event coincides with the Gardens’ 200th anniversary and has also found favour as it grew like Topsy with five major private foundations, the Commonwealth Bank, and a host of government, educational and media bodies.

As a result of this funding, there have been three symposia to expand upon the history, there are daily talks and story-telling on site, the schools program is sold out, invigilators (an odd word for guides) aren’t just there to stop you stealing shields but are capable of sharing their knowledge, and Optus has come up with an app which tells you what you’re looking at as you wander the perimeter – view it on an Apple or Android.

For JJ has been determined to keep images out of the picture “ an odd priority for an artist! But something that’s developed organically during his two years of Topsydom has been the enthusiasm across NSW for its ancient languages. The Federal government, by the way, chucks in $20m a year to encourage these languages nationally. Eight from NSW are represented in sound hubs around the site, with the Gadigal (so often a tokenistic word tossed out as speech-makers ritually acknowledge the Eora Nation) here a living language under a fig tree accompanied by the sounds of the waves that heard it so often throughout history. JJ’s own Wiradjuri is spoken by the great architect of this language revival, Stan Grant Snr and his Kamilaroi is recited by a team of kindergarten kids in Tamworth. Songs have been written and sung in Gunditjmara, the language of western Victoria. And the show itself is called ‘barrangal dyara’ in Gadigal, which translates as ‘skin & bones‘, as JJ attempts to ‘wake up’ the Sydney language.

This is a project whose time has come, he insists, and goes on to point out that Australia is the only Commonwealth country that failed to sign a treaty with its Indigenes, a matter, like language recovery, which is determinedly returning to the forefront of debate. That’s a story which hasn’t gone away!

As unknown as the history of Sydney’s Garden Palace, JJ proudly told me of the 32,000-year-old seed-encrusted grindstone found at Cuddie Springs near Brewarrina recently. That makes his mob the oldest bread-makers in the world “ some 17,000 years before the Egyptians! And JJ has made a point of reminding us of that by disrupting the still-colonial sensibility of the Botanic Garden with a planting of the kangaroo grass that supplied seed for that ancient bread bang slap in the circle where Queen Victoria held court beneath her dome. For the people who were so rarely acknowledged as farmers had clearly ensured there was enough of that grass about that when 5 cows and 2 bulls escaped the early colony, they’d become a happy herd of 100 when found ‘out bush’ a decade later.

Arguably, that grass is more significant than the rose bushes in the Garden. For early journals in the colony reported that officers were invited to attend a ceremony held somewhere on the ridge now dominated by Macquarie Street – a natural site for ceremony – and there, artefacts and weapons were wielded in that ceremony. So collecting them for museums was also an act of disarmament, assesses JJ.

Ironically, the positives and negatives of fire then raise their head “ good as an aspect of Aboriginal fire-farming; a disaster for the Garden Palace, which just may have been set alight by people who wanted to ‘lose’ the records of their recent convict status, then stored in the Palace after the closing of the Sydney International Exhibition.

Not stored in the Palace but in a separate temporary arts annex were the artworks that would go on to become the foundation collection of the Art Gallery of NSW because it was cheaper to donate them than ship them back to the Mother Country. The existence of a collection lead to demands for a building on the western side of the Domain “ at first resisted because of that site’s association with the activities of sailors and prostitutes! Nevertheless, in 1885, an ‘Art Barn’ opened.

As you may be able to tell, this Kaldor Project 32 has multifarious ramifications, making it more significant, arguably, than the temporary arrival and departure of even John Kaldor’s most momentous international projects….Christo, Gilbert & George, Nam Jun Paik, Marina Abramovich, etc. One of the key questions JJ has asked himself and others is, Why have we forgotten the Palace?. For it stood in its day as one of NSW Premier Sir Henry Parkes’s three key achievements: stopping the convict ships, the Garden Palace and initiating Federation “ though he’d not live to see it 20-odd years later. All are linked via the Henry Kendall poem written to celebrate the Palace and the Exhibition, which was set to music by Paolo Giorza and became such a popular Cantata that it stimulated the first discussions about replacing God Save the Queen with a local National Anthem.

So why do none of my history books mention the Garden Palace or its flagration? And why are we being brought to book by an Aboriginal artist? Perhaps at least part of the answer lies in our white embarrassment wrought by the mood of those times “ as enshrined in the immortal words of Henry Kendall:
Lo they come, the lords unknown / Sons of Peace from every zone! / Shining nations! Let them see / How like England we can be.