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Perth Museum: What’s the secret of its success?

Critics branded the £27m museum a 'white elephant': 100,000 visitors in three months suggest they were wrong

Perth Museum interior showing Stone of Destiny experience
Perth Museum has surpassed all expectations. Image: Steve MacDougall/DC Thomson

If the Facebook critics were to be believed, the new Perth Museum was destined for disaster.

The weeks leading up to the launch were beset with complaints about the uniforms, the cafe, the opening weekend plans…

And that’s beside the accusations that the council had blown £27 million on a costly “white elephant”.

But the numbers tell a different story.

On day one, March 30, the new museum welcomed 3,000 visitors through its doors.

Perth Museum exterior
Perth Museum opened in the spring. Image: Steve MacDougall/DC Thomson

By the end of the first month the total had risen to 40,000 people.

And 10 weeks in, the tally topped an impressive 83,000.

Last week it emerged the museum, in the refurbished Perth City Hall, had just welcomed its 100,000th visitor.

That puts it well ahead of course to hit its target of 167,000 in the first 12 months.

And the social media naysayers? Well, they’re not so vocal any more.

The McEwan Family standing in front of Carpow logboat at perth Museum
The McEwan family became the 100,000 visitors to Perth Museum last week. Image: Culture Perth and Kinross.

So what’s behind the success? And can it keep it up?

The Courier asked some of those early visitors to look beyond the numbers and give their verdict on the surprise hit of the summer.

Museum belongs to people of Perth and Kinross

Arthur Rodgie reckons good old word-of-mouth has been the secret.

And he’s here to dispel the notion that museums are stuffy places catering only for the elite.

The 65-year-old grew up on the Muirton housing estate and donated the Ainslie Place street sign that hangs on the first floor balcony.

Ainslie Place street sign on wall above display case in Perth Museum
A little corner of the Muirton in Perth Museum. Image: DC Thomson.

“It cost me £10 for a workman to take it off the wall when the Muirton was being demolished,” he grins.

“It sat at my front door and reminded me of where I was dragged up for 18 years of my life.”

Arthur has been back to see it a number of times now.

And it pleases him that the old City Hall – scene of jumble sales, school prize-givings and that Sydney Devine concert he took his mum to – is a depositary for people’s memories once again.

Arthur Rodgie in smart suit at royal garden party in Edinburgh
Arthur Rodgie at this year’s royal garden party – not bad for a boy from the Muirton. Image: Supplied.

For him, the Ainslie Place sign is a reminder of who the new museum and all its stuff belongs to.

Because while tourists might be drawn in by showstoppers like the Stone of Destiny and Bonnie Prince Charlie’s sword, it’s the little pieces of social history that will keep locals coming back.

“A lot of the people who were quite happy to run the place down probably won’t go and visit anyway, and probably didn’t go to the old museum either,” says Arthur.

Perth Museum interior
Perth Museum has breathed new life into the old City Hall. Image: Steve MacDougall/DC Thomson

“You’re never going to change their minds.

“But if your mate goes in and says ‘that was really good’, that’s what will really encourage people to go and have a look for themselves.”

Museum launch put Perth on map

Of course, visitors from elsewhere are a big part of the museum’s success too.

And the national papers raved about it when it opened.

The Guardian gave it five stars, writing: “This is how to reinvent a local museum”

Person walking past large boat carved from a single log in Perth Museum
The 3,000 year-old Carpow logboat in Perth Museum. Image: VisitScotland.

And the ripples continue to spread.

The museum has since welcomed journalists from countries like Germany, Spain, Austria and North America.

It’s racking up TripAdvisor reviews from Aberystwyth, Illinois and everywhere in between.

And last month, Culture Perth and Kinross chief Helen Smout told councillors the opening had generated the kind of news coverage money can’t buy.

“We were literally in every single local newspaper across England and Wales,” she said.

Helen Smout walking past exhibits in Perth Museum
Helen Smout briefed councillors on Perth Museum’s performance. Image: Steve MacDougall/DC Thomson

BBC culture editor Katie Razzall visited Perth for the launch at the end of March and wrote: “I think I may have found the perfect-sized museum.”

Speaking to The Courier this week, she said she was thrilled – but not surprised – by its success.

For her, museum chiefs have hit on just the right mix of nationally-significant and hyper-local history.

And she can still taste the excitement of the local schoolchildren who shared their hopes that this museum would put their city on the map.

Stone of Destiny in its new home at Perth Museum
The Stone of Destiny on display at Perth Museum. Image: Jane Barlow/PA.

“I’ve been banging the drum for Perth Museum ever since,” she says.

“I was telling people just last week they had to go.

“There are just so many incredible things that have stuck in my mind.”

Visitors need a reason to return

Perth historian Dr Paul Philippou made a return visit to the museum with his daughter, who is visiting from London, this week.

The Tippermuir Books director is a fan.

Paul Philippou head and shoulders
Paul Philippou. Image: Supplied.

The Stone of Destiny experience is beautifully done, he says.

And the revamped City Hall provides much more space to display the wealth of items in the Perth and Kinross collection than the old museum on George Street.

The challenge now is to give visitors a reason to return

“There’s always that honeymoon year when everyone wants to see the new thing,” says Dr Philippou.

Display cases filled with exotic costumes and stuffed creatures
Perth Museum is packed with treasures from around the world and closer to home. Image: Steve MacDougall/DC Thomson

“It was the same with the V&A.

“And you’re always going to get tourists coming in to see the static exhibits.

“But after a while you’re going to need to put on other exhibitions that will bring local people back for repeat visits.”

Let’s leave the last word on that subject to Anne Howitt, for whom that’s yet to become an issue and without whom the 100,000 visits would only have amounted to 99,996.

Anne Howitt smiling
Retired teacher Anne Howitt is a repeat visitor to Perth Museum. Image; DC Thomson.

The retired Perth teacher was among the first visitors on the opening day, when she snapped up the last ticket to see the Stone of Destiny.

And she has been back at least three times since.

“I still haven’t seen it all,” she admits.

“I keep going with folk who are visiting and showing them the bits I really like.

“One of these days, I’ve promised myself I’ll go and take in every corner.”