The Box is the largest multi-disciplinary arts and heritage space opening anywhere in the UK next year and the biggest in the South West of England. Originally three separate buildings, its ground-breaking design has completely transformed, extended and combined Plymouth’s former City Museum and Art Gallery and Central Library buildings and restored St Luke’s Church to create a cutting-edge, interactive cultural centre with seven new galleries, six changing exhibition spaces, a striking elevated archive, a new glass atrium, learning and research facilities and the first public square to be built in Plymouth since 2004.
The Box Plymouth
The £40m project has created a visitor destination for the region and beyond of nearly 8000m2 – more than three times the size of the original museum. With a design approach that seamlessly combines the contemporary and the historical, The Box provides a new infrastructure to revolutionise the way Plymouth’s permanent collections and visiting exhibitions are managed and displayed.
A fundamental part of The Box’s innovative architecture is its elevated ‘archive in the sky’ which will be home to the majority of its collections. Atkins (one of the world’s leading architectural firms; having worked with Heathrow Airport, Rolls-Royce and TfL) has designed a contemporary extension of 900m2 which features Europe’s largest unsupported cantilever, measuring 8m deep and 10m high. This impressive ‘floating box’ above the building’s centre is clad externally in four finishes of panels – white, grey, black and mirrored stainless steel – subtly mixed and graded over the elevations to represent pages telling the many stories the collections hold. Designed by Architect Ben Aston as a modern-day take on a cabinet of curiosities, it’s a daring and dramatic structure.
Visitors will instantly be drawn in by the glazed facade of The Box, made up of 149 panes of glass, as they see a dramatic suspended ‘flotilla’ of 14 newly restored monumental ships figureheads on loan from the National Museum of the Royal Navy, appearing to sail through the double-height atrium in an iconic installation. This space will be day-lit as light floods in through the glass facade and dramatically lit at night, visible from a new 800m2 outside piazza at all times.
Beyond the figureheads at the upper level is the Active Archive gallery. The gallery runs as a bridge linking the old buildings with the new – part exhibition, part social space, part workspace. The front of the bridge overlooks the main entrance and figurehead installation. The other side is more contained, overlooking a void and the back walls of the historical museum and library buildings. Visitors can browse the local studies collection in comfortable seating and engage with maps from the last 500 years via an interactive digital ‘map table’. In the centre of the space, there are a series of display archways, each focusing on a different object from the archive and a different story evidenced by archival material.
The central archways lead to a dedicated research room which features highlights from The Box’s historically significant Cottonian Collection. Amassed during the 18th century, the Designated Collection is protected by an Act of Parliament and consists of 2000 volumes, 100 Old Master drawings and 3000 of the finest prints from England and Western Europe. In this space, visitors to The Box will be able to request access to any of the collections stored in the ‘archive in the sky’.
Other prominent architectural features in The Box include the historical double-height atrium of the original Edwardian museum with its beautiful terrazzo marble floor and from which all galleries and exhibition spaces can be accessed.
Art, history, science, education and so much more can be found inside The Box, all different, all connected and all under one incredible new roof. A modern, fresh approach has been taken by Plymouth City Council and Atkins to reflect the relevance of these collections today and to complement the contemporary style of the cantilevered extension.
Building works have been led by construction and regeneration specialist Willmott Dixon, one of the largest contracting companies in the UK. While, leading exhibition designer Event Communications has assisted in converting the existing buildings into 3500m2 of interactive exhibition spaces and large-scale permanent galleries. The Box will also be equipped with a teaching room for the University of Plymouth as well as meeting rooms, a shop and cafe.
The fit-out of The Box is led by specialist contractor The Hub, which has worked with globally-important museums such as the Victoria and Albert Museum for its David Bowie exhibition – the V&A’s most successful exhibition ever.
In the heart of this transformation on the wall of St Luke’s, overlooking Tavistock Place, is a distinctive outdoor pulpit, in memory of Caroline Louisa Courtney (wife of Reverend Frederick Courtney, who became Rector of the significant St James Church in NYC). Installed in 1913, it was once used by clergymen to take their sermons to the street, preaching to the passers-by and the passengers on the trams that rattled along what was then the arterial route to the north.
Responding to the unique architectural qualities of the building and history of St Luke’s, its renovation includes a new ceiling with strengthened trusses, concrete floor and beautifully restored stained-glass windows. The original classical facade set over tetrastyle Tuscan pilasters with entablature will remain. The church’s rectangular two-storey interior retains its 1828 gallery with panelled front and moulded plaster ceiling cornice above and original panelled box pews – a good example of a large urban chapel in the classical style.
In the connecting outdoor space between St Luke’s and The Box’s main building, a new public space will be created where visitors can experience a rich and varied programme of music, performance, dance and public art throughout the year.
Connecting people with their world-class heritage, The Box is more than a building and serves as an important cultural and historical hub for education and learning, enabling children and communities in Plymouth and beyond to develop the skills and knowledge needed for a successful future. The vibrant new centre will attract visitors to Plymouth, furthering local economic vitality. This world-class visitor attraction will breathe life into the city’s rich history while providing a home for its most precious collections, brought together under one roof. The Box is a symbol for Plymouth’s current regeneration and a museum, art gallery and archive for the future.