Originally three separate buildings, its ground-breaking design has completely transformed, extended and combined Plymouth’s former City Museum and Art Gallery, Central Library buildings and St Luke’s Church to create a cutting-edge, interactive cultural centre with 13 new galleries and exhibition spaces, a striking elevated archive, learning and research facilities, and the first public square to be built in Plymouth since 2004.
The Box has been open from 29th September 2020 with 12 new exhibitions showcasing contemporary art alongside Plymouth’s rich heritage, ambitious touring exhibitions alongside the city’s permanent collections, natural history alongside maritime history, interactive exhibits, giant art installations, immersive film and photography exhibits, as well as activities for children.
As you walk in, you are greeted by the 14 monumental ships’ figureheads, collectively weighing over 20 tonnes. These figureheads are part of the 9 permanent displays along with ‘100 Journeys’, ‘Mammoth, ‘Our Art’, Port of Plymouth’, ‘Media Lab’, ‘Cottonian Collection’, ‘Active Archive’ and ‘Photo Album’.
The 100 journeys show some of the momentous and notorious voyages that began in Plymouth and went on to change the world. The gallery features breath-taking original artefacts from voyages of exploration and scientific discovery, including Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh, Captain James Cook, Charles Darwin, Gertrude Benham and Scott of the Antarctic.
At the centre of the gallery surrounded by butterflies, taxidermy, birds’ eggs, and other assorted species, stands a life-size woolly mammoth, bursting out of the collection. The Box’s collection of fossils shows that around 30,000 years ago, during the ice age, mammoths were very common in Plymouth. The Box’s mammoth was constructed based on information researchers found from studying a mammoth tooth in The Box’s collections; the tooth will also be on display.
Port of Plymouth explores the symbiotic journey Plymouth has with the sea: from the city’s origins as Bronze Age settlements through to its growth into a powerhouse of trade and commerce, and its final expansion to become an epicentre of both maritime industry and defence. Visitors will find themselves immersed in collections of archaeology, oil paintings, ship models and social history through film, animation, and sound – bringing this epic and historic relationship to life.
The Box owns one of the largest museum collections of fine art in the UK and Our Art showcases four centuries of artistic talent from the South West. This includes paintings by Joshua Reynolds, who set up his first studio in Plymouth, before going on to found the Royal Academy of Art and become one of the most important portrait painters of the 18th century. In addition, Our Art will feature works by Stanhope Forbes and Barbara Hepworth, who were drawn to the South West by the luminous quality of coastal light and were key figures in the Newlyn and St Ives artist colonies.
Media Lab is a showcase for the South West Film and Television Archive (SWFTA), one of the richest regional film archives in the UK that holds thousands of reels of film footage, dating back to the late Victorian era. Families and kids visiting the Media Lab will have the opportunity to present a TV programme, edit a film, gain access to 1,000s of images and films from the collection, and even get a chance to meet famous South West puppet Gus Honeybun.
The outstanding Cottonian Collection is an internationally important 18th-century collection of paintings, Old Master drawings, books, prints, ceramics, furniture, bronzes, and sculpture assembled by five men over 200 years, led by Charles Rogers. Rogers also designed the beautiful furniture in which the collection is stored. The collection was inherited from and left to Plymouth by William Cotton III, for the “use of the inhabitants of Plymouth, Stonehouse and Devonport, for their amusement and instruction”.
Photo Album showcases thought-provoking photographic displays that reflect the lives of people in Plymouth and its diverse communities. The gallery is split into two sections, a photo wall and an area highlighting community participation through projects and co-curation.
Active Archive illustrates key episodes in the history of Plymouth, using archive documents, books, historic artefacts, interactive displays, and photographs. For example, The Box’s archive holds proof that Devon invented the Cornish pasty – the earliest record of a pasty recipe, dating from 1510. The Active Archive also contains some of the city’s most amazing documents, including the bomb book, which records the location of every high-explosive bomb dropped on the city.
They also have two opening exhibitions, one being the ‘Mayflower 400: Legend and Legacy’ and the other called ‘Making it’
Mayflower 400: Legend and Legacy is the national commemorative exhibition for the Mayflower 400 anniversary and the largest loans exhibition ever staged by the city of Plymouth. 400 years on, this is an important moment in history. This major exhibition presents the powerful perspectives and new narratives of the Mayflower – its legends and legacies. Mayflower 400: Legend and Legacy has been co-curated with the Wampanoag Advisory Committee to Plymouth 400 in the USA. Tribal scholars and educators have worked in partnership with curators at The Box to present a Native American view of English colonisation. Providing modern and historical material to demonstrate their lives before and after the Mayflower, their insights will challenge your perceptions and perhaps even change your opinions.
The Box has unveiled its inaugural contemporary art exhibition Making It, featuring the work of six contemporary international artists: Leonor Antunes (Portugal), Christopher Baker (USA), Alexandre da Cunha (Brazil), Antony Gormley (UK), Eva Grubinger (Austria) and Kehinde Wiley (USA). Making It is spread across four spaces at The Box: South Hall, North Hall, Hurdle Gallery and St. Luke’s and includes Leonor Antunes’ Sequences, Inversions and Permutations; Kehinde Wiley’s Ship of Fools, shown in collaboration with the University of Plymouth’s Arts Institute; and a work in the public realm by Antony Gormley called Look II on West Hoe Pier.
At the heart of The Box’s ethos is the conservation, heritage and preservation of Plymouth’s rich history and heritage. The Box brings together six outstanding national collections in a new and sustainable home, including objects from Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, archives from the Plymouth and West Devon Record Office and film, and photographs from the South West Film and Television Archive and the South West Image Bank. This rich blend of collections will enable the stories of international and local significance to be told through immersive experiences and amazing objects.
The Box has carried out a wide-ranging assessment of its spaces and has put a number of additional safety and social distancing measures in place to help visitors feel as comfortable as possible. These include:
The team at OM really enjoyed our trip to The Box and learnt a lot about our city’s past and we hope you enjoy it too!