Plymouth’s key cultural facility has been literally turned around to face the future. The original grand Victorian entrance into the museum and art gallery from North Hill, which was forbidding and told nothing of its contents, has been replaced by a glass atrium entrance facing a new square on the other side of the building.
The group of ships’ figureheads visible in the entrance foyer is a clear signal that The Box is in a maritime city. There is also the welcoming sight of visitors in the foyer cafe. In summer, tables will be available on a terrace and, no doubt, the square will be used for events.
The Box is more than just a museum. The building houses facilities that were spread across the city, including the South West Film and Television Archive and the South West Image Bank, as well as those that were already on the site, including the Plymouth and West Devon Record Office and the Plymouth Natural History Collection. One of the most exciting things about this development is the chance for creating symbiotic relationships for the public between these organisations.
Rather than exiting through the gift shop, visitors go through it to reach the galleries. This leads to what was the original entrance to the museum, where one of six contemporary works created as part of the Making It commissions is located. Figurehead II, by Alexandre da Cunha, consists of four huge sections of concrete drainage pipe stacked six metres tall – a structure with inviting holes in it that was being explored by children when I was there.
Three gallery spaces lead off this. On entering the first, visitors are greeted by Plymouth’s life-size model of a mammoth. Interactive displays, and cases holding artefacts, tell stories about the geology of the south-west peninsular, those who lived there from prehistoric times, and its flora and fauna.
Visitors then move into the Port of Plymouth galleries, where a 3D film sequence on a giant screen reveals the port city’s role in Britain’s history. This leads to displays telling the story of Plymouth’s industries and naval heritage, which is well illustrated with images and oral history.
Focus on slavery
The 100 Journeys gallery features travellers who departed from Plymouth – as well as famous explorers such as the Tudor sea captain and explorer Francis Drake, the 19th-century evolutionary scientist Charles Darwin on the Beagle, the 20th-century explorer Scott of the Antarctic, and Francis Chichester, the pioneering aviator and sailor who solo-circumnavigated the world in 1967 in his boat, Gipsy Moth IV. The intrepid Gertrude Benham, an explorer and mountaineer, is also included. She donated 800 items to the museum in 1934, after having travelled to 60 countries.
All these history-changing events also remind us of the negative journeys that Plymouth has been part of. For instance, it was the port from which the Tolpuddle Martyrs were transported to Australia. And Plymouth’s part in the slave trade and its abolition is not ignored. “Colonial slavery shaped modern Britain and we live with its legacies” – this is an important sentence in a display case devoted to John Hawkins, one of the originators of the slave trade. The journal of Arthur Frankland, the Plymouth captain of an anti-slavery ship, sits alongside a display of manacles and plans of slave ships – a reminder of the appalling conditions that victims of the slave trade endured.
The principal gallery on the second floor contains the Mayflower 400 exhibition, on until September 2021. The importance of this show cannot be overstated, not just because of the significance of the objects, which include the first Bible to be printed in America, Mayflower memorabilia and photos of descendants of the passengers, but also because of the involvement of people from the Wampanoag nation.
The Wampanoag people are an indigenous American population who formerly occupied parts of what are now the states of Rhode Island and Massachusetts. In a message that should be spread widely, Paula Peters of the Mashpee Wampanoag nation writes: “I do not hold you responsible for the past, but I do hold you responsible for the future.”
There are three distinct elements in the Our Art gallery. One wall shows works on the theme of the artists’ studio. Highlights are Stanhope Forbes’ 1884 painting, A Fish Sale on a Cornish Beach, which is shown alongside studies for the work, and items from the studio of the 18th-century portraitist Joshua Reynolds, who was born and bred in Plymouth. Reynolds’ recently conserved self-portrait is also on show.
The second element is a floor-to-ceiling display containing ceramics, pottery, plates and figurines. The third part is the Plymouth Panorama, which comprises around 30 paintings depicting scenes along the coastline from the River Plym to the River Tamar. These are displayed three-deep on high walls. This allows a large number of paintings to be shown in a small area, the disadvantage being that many are hard to see at a distance.
When I visited, the Media Lab and the Photo Album spaces, which showcase film and photography, were proving popular with visitors. Media Lab shows the development of film and television as well as a sequence of film, featuring everything from the Beatles visit to Plymouth to Barbara Hepworth at work. The relevance to local people was brought home when I heard one visitor say: “Oh look! There’s Sue’s mum!”
The exhibition in the Photo Album gallery, Plymouth: the Five Towns, consists of 200 photographs displayed on giant lightboxes. This will facilitate the changing the selections from the vast collection held by The Box.
The Active Archives space provides visitors with a chance to explore some of the holdings of the Plymouth and West Devon Record Office, including reference books. Items on display enable visitors to explore the development of Plymouth following its bombing in the second world war. This space leads into the Cottonian Room, where researchers will be able to order items from the archive.
On the other side of the new square is the restored church of St Luke’s, which now provides a space for changing exhibitions of contemporary art. The opening show is of sculptural work by the Portuguese artist Leonor Antunes, who was commissioned to design a new window for the church. The window, made of multicoloured glass, is a glorious enhancement of the space.
There is so much more to explore at The Box, such as the community figurehead project display that can be seen from the cafe, and the powerful Ship of Fools works by the contemporary portraitist Kehinde Wiley in the Arts Institute. Is a day enough to do justice to The Box? No – it’s a place to visit regularly, savouring one element at a time. It is a vital addition to cultural provision in the West Country.