What’s inside The Box

The Box will include seven large-scale permanent galleries featuring collections from the now closed Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery and archive material from Plymouth and West Devon Record Office, South West Film and Television Archive and South West Image Bank. These will be:

The Cottonian Reading Room

This will house our Designated Collection, “The Cottonian – Plymouth’s Greatest Gift”. It was assembled by five men over two centuries and was left by William Cotton III, who died without issue, for the “use of the inhabitants of Plymouth, Stonehouse and Devonport, for their amusement and instruction”. Whilst the Cottonian collectors were men of good income, they were definitely not hugely wealthy or aristocratic – thus the collection reflects the rise of the British professional middle classes. The collection was originally passed from the original family owners to the Plymouth Proprietary Library in 1850 and then to the City of Plymouth, by Act of Parliament in 1915, such was its importance.

Anthony Griffiths, Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum until 2011, called the Cottonian “one of the most important collections in the UK”. It consists of 2,000 volumes, 100 Old Master drawings, 3,000 of the finest prints from England and Western Europe made between the 16th and 19th centuries, examples of Dutch landscapes, Italian religious paintings, sculpture, furniture and a particularly important group of family portraits by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Other key objects include a stunning ‘Book of Hours’ from the 1400s, Durer’s ‘Passion of Christ’, a ‘Sitter’s Book’ belonging to Joshua Reynolds (listing all those who sat for him in 1755) and four Reynolds’ portraits.

Our Art

This space showcases and celebrates the breadth and depth of the Art collections and, through interpretation, presents a rich taste of our huge collection. The first hang will feature 3 key displays: these are a Mass Display of 335 Decorative art objects covering an entire wall – the pieces are from all periods and all corners of the globe include ceramics, silverware, glass, textiles and costume, church plate; a display of works by artists from the South West including Rose Hilton, Stanhope-Forbes (the highlight of which is his famous “Fish Sale on a Cornish Beach”) (1857-1947), Reynolds and Robert Lenkiewicz – it will also include some of their personal objects from their studios; and a landscape hang in which the paintings en masse showcase the landscape of Plymouth that altogether gives a picture across time and styles of painting.

Active Archives

A space where the public can access all of our local history books, maps and publications, or star items as diverse as the ‘Bomb Book’ and a diary account of Napoleon’s imprisonment in the Sound on board his ship, immortalised by Girardet’s painting, in our collection, “Napoleon on the Bellerophon in Plymouth Sound, 1815”. The space will feature a series of pods and in each will be a display about different periods in the life of Plymouth. The rebuilding of post war Plymouth will feature highly. It will be place for study and for active group work led by members of the public or by our learning staff working with specific interest organisations.

Media Lab

Proposed design for the Media Lab

A visual of how the Media Lab could look

A space to enjoy our film and photographic archives and do everything from gaining an insight into our recent past to using a rich vein of material for serious academic research; it will also be possible to edit and create films on site. A vast screen will cover 3 walls showing footage from our collections; the history of film and photography will be shown through both images and the technology that created them; there will be a chance to read the news in a mock tv studio and the ability to access 1000s of images and films from our collection.

Memory Box

This is our social history space – a chance for people to see objects that might be familiar to them from their grandparents, their childhood or from their own knowledge of the past – the objects will provoke discussion.

Photo Album and Community Space

A gallery for showing mass photography displays either from our collection or from new projects we have created with our partners and the community.


Artist impression of the Mammoth gallery in the Plymouth History Centre - set to open in spring 2020

A visual of how Mammoth Plymouth could look

Plymouth has been a centre of investigation and study about the natural world from the 18th century (the Marine Biology Association was set up here in 1884) and the city is a world leader in marine research. The gallery will feature the City Museum and Art Gallery’s vast collections of marine pickled specimens, butterflies, taxidermy, birds’ eggs and other species, bursting out of huge mass case in the middle of the room in which will sit a life-size woolly mammoth, a creature that once roamed the Sound, and the jawbone of which we have in the collection. Skeletons, stuffed birds, fossils, minerals and insects will all sit within and around the case.

100 Journeys

How journeys to and from Plymouth contributed to great change – this gallery will feature the stories of Drake and the Spanish Armada, Sir Walter Raleigh, James Cook, Charles Darwin, Gertrude Benham, the Grand Tour, and Francis Chichester to name a few. The darker stories of colonialism, slavery, the work of missionaries and forced emigration will also feature. This gallery shows how objects and people arriving in Plymouth contributed to a wider interpretation of the world beyond and created a huge diversity within our own collections.

Port of Plymouth

This gallery tells how Plymouth and Dartmoor began as settlements (exemplified by archaeological finds from Dartmoor’s Whitehorse Hill, visible in our collection) and subsequently became first a medieval and post medieval powerhouse, then a safe harbour due to the building of the Eddystone Lighthouse and Plymouth Breakwater, and finally how it went on to support the navy and become a working port and dockyard.

What else will be here?

Seven additional galleries will also host community exhibitions, local and nationally touring exhibitions, artistic projects and commissions. In 2020 when The Box opens one of these spaces will be used for a major exhibition linked with 2020’s Mayflower 400 commemorations called ‘Mayflower 400: Legend and Legacy’.

There will also be a public archive area and a research room.

The Box will feature a shop, a café, learning and orientation spaces and Levinsky Gallery across the road on the University campus.