Introducing: The Box
The newly installed full-size woolly mammoth in the Natural Science gallery is sure to delight young visitors. Its fuzzy appearance will seem familiar; possibly because it is made of the same fur as Chewbacca in Star Wars. A few feet away is a huge plexiglass case full of creepy crawlies of every size, stripe, and shape. Sure, to be a hit with kids as well. ‘Everything in this museum has a connection to Plymouth or its place in the world,’ says Abigail Netcott, marketing and development manager. "Woolly mammoth fossils discovered locally confirm these amazing beasts were roaming here 35,000 years ago along with bears, cave lions, hyenas and woolly rhinos."
For many the news of a £46 million museum complex opening in Plymouth, reported to be the largest such space in the UK this year, might come as a surprise. Britain’s Ocean City - its self-selected moniker – like many port cities in the UK has struggled financially in recent years. But the combined funding from Plymouth City Council, the Arts Council of England and the Heritage Lottery Fund has brought the Box into existence. The plan is for this museum and art gallery to instil pride in the city and be a focal point for the community. In keeping with this mission, entrance to the museum will be free of charge for everyone.
The Legend and Legacy exhibition and the commissioned pot by Ramona Peters
The unveiling, meant to be in April, has been put back due to coronavirus. Fortuitously, the opening today (29 September 2020) coincides with the same month the Mayflower departed for the New World. In honour of the quadricentennial, the Box has put together a curated collection of historical and modern objects. The Mayflower 400: Legend and Legacy exhibit is a tantalising addition for the opening and has been co-curated with the Wampanoag Advisory Committee to Plymouth 400 in Massachusetts. It includes a newly commissioned piece from a Mashpee Wampanoag artist, Ramona Peters, also known as Nosapocket; the cooking pot will be displayed alongside historic Wampanoag materials on loan from the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington.
The Box complex is made up of the old City Museum and Art Gallery, the adjacent Central Library, and the deconsecrated St. Luke’s Church (just opposite the museum) which will be a contemporary art space. Leading up to and outside the entrance is a new courtyard. Inside, everything has been completely refurbished with former collections moved into new spaces and new galleries being launched. The entrance is new and displays 14 Victorian naval figureheads that adorned some of Plymouth’s famous sailing ships. Recovered from the Maritime Museum, they have been restored to their former glory using a new technology known as sonic tomography.
Final touches to the figureheads - Photo: Wayne Perry
This will be the new location of the Southwest Film and TV archive as well as the two million photographic impressions that make up the Southwest Image Bank’s archive. The celluloid will be housed in the basement in state-of-the-art deep storage archive facilities. These archives have become the inspiration for the museum’s new Media Lab which is striking for its collection of objects. It is also the setting for a news studio which has been set up with youngster’s in mind. The BBC was integral in creating this news station which will have a live video feed like a real broadcast.
What will be on offer of an international calibre? The central foyer of the old museum will feature a concrete/cement creation by the Brazilian artist, Alexandre da Cunha, known for architecturally abstract constructions. The renowned Portuguese installation artist Leonor Antunes has created a new stained-glass window in the St. Luke’s contemporary art space. Anthony Gormley has also been commissioned; he will build a statue for West Hoe Pier. Made from 22 individual iron blocks, it will be cast as one single piece to create a twice life-size figure.
Close up of the glass in Leonor Antunes' window and the stained window in situ in St. Lukes
Access to the collections is one of the cornerstones of The Box’s philosophy. One of its new galleries, the Cottonian Research Room, will be an invigilated space which features highlights from the Cottonian Collection of art. If people are working on a project, tracing their family history or researching a PhD thesis, collection items that are not on display can be made available to them by appointment.
This museum and art gallery not only puts Plymouth on the map, it is creating unprecedented ties with the international world of art. Yet, for a port city that has been connected by sea with the globe for much of its history, this seems quite appropriate.
Tavistock Place, Plymouth PL4 8AX
Open: Tuesday to Sunday and bank holidays, from 10am to 5pm.