This year marks Debbie Sproule’s 32nd year working for the Perth Museum.
That’s a decent chunk of history.
Throughout the years, Sproule has become an expert on the archives. She has lent her knowledge and skills to the preservation and documentation of Perth’s history, and had the pleasure of working with many interesting artefacts. In celebration of her incredible contributions to the Perth Museum, we sat down with Sproule for a Q&A to pick her brain and learn a bit more about the Museum and its offerings.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
Everything. Working in the museum with the archives has been truly enriching, remarkable, wonderful and surprising. It’s amazing the way a photo or artefact can evoke powerful emotions.
Where are the Museum archives?
The Archives are located in what used to be the Butler’s Pantry, which is just off the dining room in Matheson House. Back in the day this is where all the dishes, glassware and cutlery were kept and where the final touches were put on meals before they were sent into the dining room. Today, this is where all the books, documents and photos are kept before they go on exhibit for our visitors to see. It’s kind of fitting when you think about it.
Is it true you have seen artefacts made of human skin?
It’s true. I once saw a lampshade, wallet, belt and change purse made of the skin of Thomas Easby, Perth’s first convicted murderer and the last victim of public hanging on August 24, 1829. He murdered his family with the exception of the youngest child. Because of the severity of the crime and the strong feeling and excitement of Perth residents, his body was exhumed, skinned and made into a wallet, lampshade and purse. Years ago, the Perth Courier was doing an article on Thomas Easby and the person in possession of these artefacts contacted the Perth Museum to have the pieces photographed. I got to see and touch some of the pieces. It was truly astonishing the look and feel of them. That memory will always be with me.
What are some high-profile items in the museum’s collection?
Over the years I’ve had the pleasure of working with some unique and interesting artefacts. Most were donated when Archibald Campbell founded the Perth Museum in 1925. His mandate was to collect, preserve and exhibit from Perth and around the world. I am a Royal Fan and my favourite Queen of all time is Mary Queen of Scots. Believe it or not, we have in our possession a copy of the death certificate of Mary Queen of Scots and a key to her bed chamber! I would love to go to Holyrood and see if it fits.
We also have a telescope that was once used by Napoleon Bonaparte. The caption that accompanies the artefact: “Having surrendered unconditionally to Captain Maitland R.N., aboard the Northumberland, on August 8, 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte was transported to England. In a group of English officers, one of the donor’s family members loaned his telescope to the famous prisoner to watch his country disappear.”
Have you ever met any descendants of the Matheson family?
Yes. I’ve had the great pleasure of meeting and talking with some of the descendants over the years. They have many Matheson pieces that they have donated to the Perth Museum. It’s always fascinating speaking to them about their family’s history.
What is your favourite artefact?
My favourite artefact would have to be the piece of the Mammoth Cheese. People are often dumbfounded by the story of the Mammoth Cheese and I enjoy showing them an actual piece of the 126 years old cheese as proof of this history. Eventually, the cheese will disintegrate and become just another story, so we are lucky to see it. We will always have pictures as well but having an actual piece – to me that’s what makes the story come alive.
What items are most requested by the public?
The items that most people request are the Mammoth Cheese and the pistols from the infamous Last Duel of 1833.
How would you say our past influences the future?
We are a society rich in culture, and I strongly believe that it’s our awareness of our heritage past that has paved the way for our society today. On a number of levels, everything we experience today, pixel by pixel, stone by stone, building by building and street by street can be traced back to an equally valuable time – it’s an immense story that envelopes us all.
Why is your work so important to you?
Perth was an early settlement with houses, buildings, mills and old-world architecture, which today is home to some gorgeous restaurants, pubs and shops. It’s only through intentional preservation that this is possible. We go out of our way to preserve, protect and exhibit our past in order to ensure that we create a tomorrow that has the cultural roots it needs to remain uniquely strong.
If that wasn’t enough, we are home to the Last Fatal Duel in Canada; we have one of the largest geological collections in Canada and one of the largest Cheese’s. We showcase a collection of artefacts which speak to the creative brilliance and innovation of our founders.
I feel there’s a power in remembering, and a force that can inspire us to embrace tomorrow with a determined optimism; a willingness to meet the future with a wisdom derived through observing the footsteps of those who’ve gone before us.
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