Have you ever heard of Sydney’s lost 19th century Garden Palace?

Directed, Written and Produced by Rachel Storey, Palace of Memories follows the artist Jonathan Jones, who challenges Australia’s colonial history by remembering and re-imagining the Garden Palace, a grand building destroyed in 1882, which contained irreplaceable Aboriginal cultural material.

Inspired by the Indigenous philosophy that fire is a symbol of regeneration, Jones created an expansive sculptural work at the former site of the Palace in Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens. The work acknowledges the trauma of this cultural loss while seeking a way forward through healing, strength and reflection.

This three part series, produced for the ABC Arts iview channel, follows the development of Jones’ work for Kaldor Public Art Projects. It explores the realisation of the artist’s vision and delves into the story behind this poignant commemoration of forgotten histories. We spoke to Rachael about how she created this wonderful web series.

What were the challenges in sourcing original photos of the Garden Palace and interviewees that knew the history of it?
I was very lucky in that Jonathan Jones, the artist at the centre of my series, had already spent years researching the Garden Palace for his upcoming artwork with Kaldor Public Art Projects and had unearthed a wealth of incredible imagery. I also worked closely with the State Library of NSW who were extremely generous in sourcing material for me. As the Garden Palace burned down in 1882 most imagery that exists around it is now in the public domain, this was an enormous advantage.

In terms of finding people to speak about the history of the Garden Palace, again, Jonathan Jones had already found several key people with a deep knowledge base by the time I began making the series. I also reached out to institutions with a historical connection to the Garden Palace to seek out their resident experts. The mysterious nature of the fire that destroyed the Garden Palace has been an area of great curiosity for many years and I found that those who were passionate about the building’s history were very willing to share their insights and speculations.

Was it difficult to tell this story in a short format and only three episodes?
This was a challenge. There was so much more that we could have shown, so much more of Jonathan’s journey of making the artwork, so much more about the history of the building and the site where it once stood. At the end of the day though, I was always making a three part series and we distilled the story down to the core elements that we were able to capture on camera. I relied on the guidance of my mentor Mandy Chang, who is the head of ABC Arts, when going through this process. There are always so many ‘what ifs’ when making a documentary because you don’t have the level of control you might have when making a fictional work. I think you just need to surround yourself with honest people to keep you on track, I was lucky to work with an extremely talented editor, Stuart Miller, who was often there for me in this regard. Ultimately, you just need to have faith in your abilities as a storyteller and trust your instincts.

What were the main challenges you faced when creating Palace of Memories?
The biggest challenge I faced when making Palace of Memories was having my time spread across a number of different projects all at once. I work in a busy full time role in the ABC Arts team and whilst we were in production on this series we were also in production on a number of other projects. I really had to embrace multi-tasking.

What was your target audience and how did you build a relationship with them?
As this series was made under the ABC Arts brand we were able to use their social media accounts to document the making of Palace of Memories. My colleague Gemma Deavin, who worked on this series with me, was always taking photos on set and capturing our process, from our trip to Parkes to visit the brilliant students learning Wiradjuri to the realisation of Jonathan Jones’s final artwork in Sydney’s Royal Botanic Garden. We found this engagement to be really valuable so that audiences could get as excited about the series and Jonathan’s work as we were.

How long did it take to produce and shoot the series?
The series took around nine months to make, though that wasn’t on a full-time basis. We were following Jonathan Jones through various stages of creating his artwork so the documentation process took place progressively throughout the year. We filmed on and off for around six months.

What is your background as a web series creator?
I’m quite new to producing web series. I’ve been working as a video producer for the ABC Arts team since 2014 and in that role I’ve produced a substantial body of short form work. Palace of Memories is the first web series that I’ve produced and directed. In 2015 I directed the web series Imitation Game, a series that followed Marina Abramović’s Sydney residency. This series was made with producer Nicola Harvey.

What did you learn from making this series? What would you do differently?
I think every time we make a film, or any piece of video content we grow as makers. Being the first series that I’ve both produced and directed Palace of Memories was an incredible learning experience for me. I would rather not focus on what I could have done differently as I’m very proud of the final series and very grateful to the people who gave their time and creativity to seeing the series realised. What I did learn though is to always be thinking about beginnings and endings when making a series of this scale.

What advice would you give to emerging creators?
In many ways, I still feel that I am an emerging creator. I think the biggest piece of advice I would give is to tell stories that you’re passionate about because this industry requires a lot of hard work and dedication and it’s that passion that is going to carry you through those long hours.