The Box, in Plymouth, will be the largest museum opening in the UK next year

The Box spearheads a big year for Devon’s museums

Simon Stephens, Issue 120/01, 24.12.2019
As well as the opening of the flagship project for Mayflower 400, Torquay Museum is celebrating its 175th anniversary with a series of events and activities
Museums in Devon are looking forward to an exciting year, with lots of important openings, exhibitions and events taking place across the county during 2020.

The Box, in Plymouth, will become south-west England’s largest arts centre when it launches in the spring. It will also be the biggest museum opening in the UK next year.

The £40m project has received £15.8m from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, £4.2m from Arts Council England and £2m from the Coastal Communities Fund. The exhibition designer is Event Communications and the main contractor is Willmott Dixon.

The Box is the flagship project for Plymouth’s Mayflower 400 commemorations, with the city playing a central role in the year-long international events programme that has been created to mark the anniversary of the ship’s voyage from the UK to the “New World” of America.

The UK activities focus on 14 destinations that make up the national Mayflower trail. The vessel left British soil from Plymouth on 16 September 1620. Nicola Moyle, the head of heritage, art and film at Plymouth City Council, says: “2020 gives us the opportunity to re-examine our past and to reflect on the English colonisation of America and its consequences. This is an important story and one we want to tell in as many different ways as we can, and as well as we possibly can.”

The key exhibition at The Box will be Mayflower 400: Legend and Legacy, which will open in the spring. It has been created in partnership with the Wampanoag
Native American Advisory Committee.

Devon’s oldest museum, meanwhile, is celebrating its 175th anniversary this year with a series of activities. Torquay Museum, with a grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and support from the Torquay Museum Society, is asking the public to choose objects for inclusion in a special exhibition that will be held in the summer.

The public is also being asked to submit photographs of Torbay in 2020 to be added to the museum’s archive, and there will be a trail of historic photos around the bay.

“We hope this part of the project will help the museum fill gaps in its collection, as we want to target underrepresented subjects,” says Barry Chandler, the collections and engagement manager at Torquay Museum.

Commissioned artwork

In Exeter, the Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery (RAMM) has commissioned the artist Joy Gregory to create an artwork for an exhibition opening in the autumn on the transatlantic slave trade.

The exhibition is part of Untold Stories, a wider programme that will involve RAMM using its collections to ask difficult questions and explore hidden stories.

Gregory will develop the artwork by looking at the collection and working with curators, the advisory panel for the exhibition and the local community. Her practice focuses on social and political issues, with a particular emphasis on cultural differences in contemporary society.

The exhibition on the transatlantic slave trade, which opens in October, will explore how its impact can still be seen in Devon today. “The Untold Stories programme is something that we have been thinking about and planning for some years,” says Julien Parsons, the senior collections officer and content lead at RAMM.

“We are seeing a shift in people’s attitudes about what museums can and should do. People have high expectations of RAMM and they expect us to be relevant. We hope that the programme will be challenging but we want to bring the audience with us on the journey.”

Elsewhere in the county, the Museum of Barnstaple and North Devon reopened late last year following a £2m extension. The venue first opened in 1888 to house the North Devon Athenaeum, a free library and museum. North Devon District Council bought the building in 1988.

The Athenaeum, its collection of documents and the county library were moved to purpose-built premises, while many of the Athenaeum’s objects remain in the museum.

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