Plymouth’s £46m Box museum opened its doors this week, four months later than planned due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The project brings together three grade II listed buildings. The city’s early 20th-century museum and the adjacent library have been revamped with interactive exhibition spaces and galleries. On the top floor of the new structure is a large, overhanging “archive in the sky”, clad with 149 panes of glass.
The nearby St Luke’s Church has been restored and has a new exhibition space. The Box site, designed by architects Atkins, also includes a new atrium with a reception area, café and shop. The buildings are linked by a square.
Paul Brookes, interim CEO of the Box, said that a mammoth gallery that includes a newly-commissioned life-sized model of a woolly mammoth is “one of the attractions that people see as a real ‘wow’”.
Other popular displays include 14 Victorian ship figureheads suspended in the main entrance to the museum and audio-visual material from the region’s film archive that is spread across different galleries.
Brookes said comments on social media showed a sense of local pride in the presentation of Plymouth’s historic importance as a port. But he said there were aspects of the city’s role in the British empire that needed “investigation and questioning”.
The opening comes in the 400th anniversary year of the Mayflower ship sailing to America. A current temporary exhibition at the museum explores this and other early attempts to colonise America, and their legacy. It includes a specially commissioned work by an artist from the Wampanoag Native American people.
Work on the new capital project began in 2014. The opening had been due to take place in mid-May, but this was pushed back when the site had to close during the national lockdown. Construction delays have led to a total extra capital cost of more than £600,000 and an estimated £900,000 in lost revenue and sponsorship.
Brookes said that completing the fitout and installation of the galleries with Covid restrictions in place had been challenging for the museum’s staff.
Particular logistical issues have been presented by temporary exhibitions, including negotiations over touring to other venues and organising travel for international artists to work on the installation.
The venue is free to visit but tickets must be booked in advance. Social distancing requirements mean it is operating at about 25% of the intended capacity.
The Box is waiting to hear the results of an application for support from Arts Council England to help it address the financial impact of the pandemic.
Brookes said that a positive side to reduced numbers was that large crowds may have made it difficult for people to “relax and enjoy the different displays”.
He said that opening during the pandemic was another example of the “brave, mad things” that had been a feature of the project throughout.