Perth Museum review – a leveler with a new look at the ancient site of the kings

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<p><figcaption class=The main hall of Perth Museum, and the oak-clad ‘ark of the covenant’ containing the Stone of Destiny.Photo: Greg Holmes

It is hard to think of a piece of masonry that is more devoted to history, myth and emotion, per cubic inch, than the Stone of Destiny. This striking object the size of a bag, on which the kings of Scotland and England have been inaugurated and crowned over the centuries, has been hijacked and re-hijacked, bombed, broken and repaired. In 1996 it was brought to Edinburgh Castle from Westminster Abbey in the back of a raised Land Rover, surrounded by a glass screen and a guard of honor like a victorious president. Last year it was temporarily returned to London, so that King Charles III could be crowned under it.

Now the stone is located in the former hall of the City Hall, Perth, a venue that used to be very happy with the sounds of the Who, Morrissey and, just after she was elected as prime minister for the first time in 1979, Margaret Thatcher. It’s a long time coming home – he was last seen in this city (or, to be precise, in nearby Skene Abbey) more than 700 years ago, before he was captured by King Edward I of England. It is now the literary and metaphorical centerpiece of the newly opened £27m Perth Museum, which has been redeveloped and housed in the old hall with the help of Dutch architectural practice Mecanoo and exhibition designers Metaphor.

The presentation of the stone presents a challenge. As strong as it is, it’s not particularly interesting to look at, although its scars and the iron fasteners used to carry it inspire some of its history. Its location in an old performance space shows that it’s rock music without much ‘n’ roll. It does, however, come with some supporting acts, artefacts from the museum’s collection. These were part of the Perth Museum and Art Gallery, and were displayed alongside paintings and sculptures. Museum and gallery are now separate institutions, the latter remaining in their former shared premises five minutes away.

The museum exhibits are a fascinating mix, collected by globe-trotting traders and archaeologists digging in the local mud, that speak of the life of a city that had an impact beyond its size. There is a magnificent 3,000-year-old longboat, carved from the trunk of a tree that was 400 years old when it fell. There are Māori artefacts, including a rare parrot feather cloak, the display of which is curated by staff from the Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand. There are centuries old children’s shoes, a piece of meteorite, a very old dog skeleton, a larger than life model of a liverwort, a giant skeleton. There are later bits of city life: a farthing penny bicycle, voting banners, a sarcophagus created for a 1959 Hammer film production The Grandma.

Mecanoo, whose previous work in Britain includes the glittering Library of Birmingham and the Home arts center in Manchester, decided to keep it simple. They kept most of the old city hall intact – a monumental stone building completed in 1914 – and repaired its decorative plaster where possible. They turned its main hall into the main exhibition space, and a gallery runs around the level where there were once balcony seats. The second auditorium is now a high-ceilinged cafe.

They have made the forbidding old building, a last gasp of Edwardian Baroque, more permeable than it was. Tall windows that light down the cafe have been extended to create a series of doors. A passage now runs from one side of the building to the other, inspired by narrow local streets called vennels, running between the exhibition space and the cafe, heralded on both sides by new concave bronze portals, made by Black Isle Bronze in Nairn. These allow step-free access and a direct link between the city and the museum – you can walk in from the square where it’s located, from either side, and quickly and easily find yourself in front of that ancient boat. Most importantly, the museum is free to enter.

Mecanoo’s other big move involves a two-storey pavilion in the central axis of the main hall, an oak-clad ark of the covenant with the Stone of Destiny inside. You reach the relic through an anteroom with an immersive video installation by 59 Productions (the “Stone Experience”) before automatic doors open to let you in. Then you get a minute or two of silence with the stone, placed about sitting height above the floor, before an animation about its history starts playing over the walls.

The film, fey and earnest like an old fashioned educational cartoon, made my toes curl. The project as a whole also suffers from some expedient and clearly budget-driven decisions: trees that were planned for the public space were left outside; Unfortunately there are several large bins located near one of the main entrances. Completing the project on time and on budget, I’m told, should be commended, but there’s an overall lack of coherence that comes from the way oak and bronze are combined with less-than-considerate finishes. same and not as high.

But, these gripes apart, the position of the stone among those other fragments of history, everyday and exotic, ancient and modern, enriches its meaning. What ends up being a modest artifact is better part of city life than cocooned in royal grandeur. Mecanoo’s design gets all the key moves right, brings moments of joy, and strikes a balance between respectability and presence. The pavilion and portals are handsome. This famous object is a good place to end.

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