Less than a decade after an attempt to replace Perth’s centuries-old City Hall with a civic square was thwarted, work is in full swing on a dramatic reinvention as Scotland’s next great cultural and heritage attraction.
The £26.5million project, set to open in 2024, has completely stripped the interior of the building since work began last summer.
The new national museum, created as a ‘blank canvas’ inside the building, will explore how Scotland has been shaped by people, places and events ‘uniquely connected to Perth’.
It will feature everything from rarely seen prehistoric and Neolithic stone carvings and Pictish slabs, to specially created exhibitions and commissions about Perth’s role as a ‘melting pot of trade, religion, culture and politics’, the Scottish Reformation, the Jacobite Risings, the Highland Clearances , Colonialism, Slavery and Modern Immigration.
The main attraction will be arguably Scotland’s most famous historical artefact, the Stone of Scone, better known as the Stone of Destiny, the ancient symbol of monarchy used for centuries at the investiture of Scottish kings until King Edward of England confiscated it from Scone in 1296 in Perthshire.
It is hoped that the project, which has the backing of both the Scottish and UK governments, will not only ensure the future of the building but also help revitalize Perth’s city center and firmly establish the city as a must-visit tourist destination to put on the map first time.
Built in 1911 after the demolition of Perth’s main venue, City Hall has played host to everything from live music events, ceilidh dances and political rallies to markets and wrestling matches, but its condition deteriorated when a new concert hall was sought closed in 2005 opened nearby.
Protracted objections from the government body Historic Scotland to the proposed demolition of the building resulted in Perth & Kinross Council agreeing to return it to public use.
A project to provide a new home for the city’s collections of national importance and to attract major touring exhibitions formed part of Perth’s 2017 bid to become a British City of Culture.
City Hall was able to move on after the £700million Tay Cities Deal, which was backed by the two Governments and Council.
In an exclusive site interview, City Council Culture Director Fiona Robertson said: “City Hall is truly the flagship of a 10-year strategy for Perth.
“Tourism has always been very important to Perth, but most tourist activity has actually been concentrated in the Perthshire Highlands.
“We really felt like people were missing out on Perth, which is not only a medieval city but also has a burgeoning contemporary arts scene and also played a big part in Scotland’s cultural renaissance in the early 20th century through people like William Soutar, John Duncan Fergusson, and Patrick Geddes.
“A touchstone for the whole project is telling the story of Scotland through the story of Perth and Perth & Kinross.
“There is a whole web of different stories and connections here. We aim to tell these stories from a hyper-local perspective, through specific events and people, as a lens to open up and understand Scotland more broadly.
“The Jacobite Risings and Highland Clearances, for example, had a very special impact on Highland Perthshire, on communities, ways of life, language and landscape.
“They are very important parts of Scottish history, but also linked to other issues and stories related to colonialism, slavery and emigration.”
JP Reid, council collections officer, said less than 1 percent of its historical artifacts could be displayed in the city’s current museum, which dates back to 1822:
He added: “The City Hall project will add significantly to our capacity, but we are running a conservation program which means that many materials not suitable for public display will be on view for the first time, especially medieval material, that came out of the earth.
“We should get, for the first time in a significant body of content, an absolutely exquisite picture of what daily life was like in Perth in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries.”
With city and town centers across Scotland suffering from the combined effects of the decline in the retail industry and the impact of the pandemic, it is hoped that the Perth Town Hall project can attract the kind of attention that the V&A Museum had for Dundee back then it was before opened four years ago.
Ms Robertson added: “We will be telling the story of old Perth & Kinross and its role in creating old Scotland, but City Hall will also be about modern Scotland.
“We want to tell these two stories in order to reach a wide audience and crucially to reconnect with local communities.
“One of the things we realized when we applied for UK City of Culture status was that some of our communities felt they had lost a sense of connection and pride with Perth and the wider area. We want to rekindle that.
“We all know that cities big and small face challenges, but it’s really important to look to the future with optimism and foresight.
“Perth is a small, walkable city. The idea of the 20 Minute Neighborhood is increasingly being debated as people live and work in their own community and are rediscovering local businesses and making connections with people and places they just didn’t have before.”
“When City Hall first opened, it wasn’t a bureaucratic administrative seat – it was a real meeting place where concerts, ceilidhs, dances and union meetings were held. It’s going to be different, but we really want it to keep that spirit.”