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The new Perth Museum is housed in the former Perth City Hall, an iconic Edwardian building which has been at the heart of social, civic and political life in the area for almost 100 years.
But the history of City Hall stretches back more than a millennium. The site on which it stands was originally part of the burial ground for the ancient St. John’s Kirk, which you can still visit next to the Museum. The site was gifted to the town by Anne of Denmark, wife of King James VI. The yard became a marketplace and later, a bowling green.
By the 1760s, a Flesh and Butter Market had been built on the site, plans for the first Perth City Hall were drawn up. At the time it opened, City Hall was the second biggest public events venue in Scotland. It hosted many 19th century luminaries including Frederick Douglass, Charles Dickens, and ‘the Swedish Nightingale’ Jenny Lind, the most famous singer of the age.
City Hall played host to everything from political rallies, temperance meetings, exhibitions, indoor roller-skating, magic shows, concerts, anti-slavery lectures, operas, and plays. These included exploitative events we find extremely problematic today, such as, ‘Freak Shows’, ‘Human Zoos’ or ‘Ethnological Expositions’, and Minstrel Shows.
By the beginning of the 20th century, the old City Hall was falling apart. In 1909, the foundation stone for this building was laid, and two years later, it opened as the new City Hall.
From Suffragettes disrupting an Irish Home Rule Meeting, to Poll Tax protesters demonstrating outside a Conservative Party Conference, Perth City Hall was a place where politics clashed. International events were discussed, and national causes were both championed and challenged.
Music was also at the heart of City Hall for nearly 100 years. The biggest acts of the day once performed on stages in what is now the main hall and museum café.
The 1960s were a golden age for City Hall with iconic acts such as The Who, Cream, The Kinks, Lulu, and The Small Faces all playing here. In the 1970s and 80s, everyone from the Bay City Rollers to Siouxsie and the Banshees played at the venue.
At one notorious gig in 1981, members of the anarcho-punk band Crass attempted to stop a brawl between fans and National Front skinheads which broke out in the crowd. Crass singer Steve Ignorant’s plea from the stage that ‘You’ll Ruin It for Everyone,’ became the name of the band’s live album, recorded that night in City Hall.
Countless local dance events, school concerts, music competitions, and ceilidhs took place here. Perth Festival of the Arts brought some of the biggest names in classical music to this venue. The 30-year association with City Hall ended in 2004 with an acclaimed performance by soprano, Kiri Te Kanawa.
With the completion of Perth Concert Hall in 2005, City Hall became redundant as an events venue and closed. It lay empty for over a decade. Plans for it to be demolished or repurposed as a hotel or food market were all considered but later abandoned. In 2016 a proposal was put forward to redevelop the building into a museum as a new home for the Stone of Destiny and Perth & Kinross’s Recognised Collections of National Significance.
After eight years of development, the former City Hall has been transformed into Perth Museum. The site has always been a place where the world comes to meet the people of Perth, and is a fitting location to explore the stories, people, and objects that put this place at the centre of Scotland’s story.