What’s in The Box?
Muddy had a sneak preview - and some amazing posh-nosh - inside Plymouth's fabulous new £46m cultural hub and The Box Kitchen & Bar. Prepare to be dazzled!
Slap-bang in Plymouth city centre, off North Hill just across the road from Drakes Circus.
Meet Plymouth’s brand-new £46 million visitor attraction: a museum, gallery and archive centre housed in the former city museum, which has been extended and made-over into a stunning contemporary glass and polished concrete space.
Its aim is to showcase the ocean city’s heritage and the story of its residents from prehistoric times to the present day, through archive and modern media and contemporary art, taking in its naval history and Plymouth in wartime along the way, in nine permanent galleries, as well as two temporary exhibitions across three floors.
Trust me, your head will be a-swivel, whether you’re taking in the amazing displays or the architecture of the building itself. It gives Bristol’s science museum We The Curious a run for its money, with its contemporary vibe, interactive displays and, er, a giant reconstruction of a woolly mammoth (they roamed Plymouth Sound during the Ice Age).
It sure makes an entrance with a flotilla of huge suspended figureheads and a giant ship’s fender (pictured above) in the lobby, with a very tempting eatery, The Box Kitchen & Bar to greet you.
Immediately up a short flight of stairs, The Box Shop is filled with quality gifts, including relevant books, toys, t-shirts, jewellery and local goodies, including St Eval candles. (I can imagine popping in here for educational Christmas pressies for the kids).
On the first floor, don’t miss the floor-to-ceiling 3-D film of the making of Plymouth (above) from prehistoric times to the historic dockyard and its experience during the second world war (apparently more bombs fell on Plymouth per head than London).
Next door, is the be-tusked mammoth and other Ice Age finds. Did you know hippos (above) roamed Devon 125,000 years ago? No, me neither.
Upstairs is the Media Lab and archive collections, where the kids and wanna-be’s (yes me!, pictured above) will leap at the chance for ‘on-screen’ time as a 1960s BBC Spotlight presenter.
And an original Westward TV Gus Honeybun puppet (remember him?), winking slightly somewhat sinisterly in a glass cabinet.
The opening highlight is the timely Mayflower 400: Legend & Legacy exhibition which runs until September 2021, providing a thoughtful and nuanced look at the Pilgrim fathers’ journey to the promised land, complete with a giant wooden Mayflower replica which you walk though, filled with fascinating artefacts, including games the children would have played.
You might be surprised by who makes the wall of fame of modern day descendants (above) – Humphrey Bogart, Clint Eastwood and Taylor Swift to name but a few.
SCOFF & QUAFF
Executive head chef Nat Tallents, one time MasterChef: The Professionals contestant and semi-finalist in The National Chef of the Year 2020, has had the challenge of creating a restaurant to match the museum. Your average museum cafe it is not, yet it still feels inclusive, offering gastro nibbles, as well as grab-and-go options, and a kids’ menu.
Channeling an urban, airy vibe, I can see it becoming an excellent drop-in for office meet-ups or for mums with tots, or a liquid lunch with the girls. It has an impressive 12 wines on the list, with 3 of each by the glass plus as local-as-you-can-get gin from Barbican Botanics).
It’s currently open day-time only but plans are afoot to extend to fine-dining style evening opens and event catering alongside hire of The Box’s 14 different rooms.
The nosh is really good. Try small plates of crab bruschetta, sweet potato soup, or handmade spring rolls and garlic bread from £4-£6 or larger plates from £8 to £14.
The Box is a dream for bored kids and rainy afternoons. It’s free, it’s educational in a fun, accessible way, the eatery is buggy-friendly yet glam, and you will enjoy rummaging around in the gift shop as much as they will (though your bank manager may not.)
If you’ve kids in tow and wondering if it’s worth paying the extra fiver to visit The Mayflower 400 exhibition, I’d say yes for kids over 10. They would love the eery ghost-like passengers waiting to embark (above) and the chance to walk into an approximation of a Pilgrim’s ship cabin, measuring a titchy 6x3ft.
There are also family-friendly trails to pick up from the Welcome desk, as well as their I Wonder trail, aimed at under 4s, which run every Thursday in term-time.
Facilities-wise, it has everything you would expect of a modern art museum, including baby-changing, a lockable areas for buggies and it’s entirely accessible for buggies and wheelchairs.
The Box Kitchen has highchairs with trays, a kids menu with fun options (above), plus breastfeeding and infant bottle-feeding can take place anywhere in the building.
Do pack the blinkers if you want to get littlies past the toy woolly mammoths in the shop.
Making it: check out new contemporary artworks by four international artists, including giant installations, digital film and fused glass. You can also see the first-ever film work by one of the world’s most acclaimed artists in ‘Kehinde Wiley: Ship of Fools’ at The Levinsky Gallery, just across the road at the University of Plymouth.
Look II: Angel of the North sculptor Antony Gormley (above) has made a new permanent artwork from 22 cast iron blocks located on West Hoe Pier. The site is where Sir Francis Chichester landed in 1967 as the first and fastest person to sail single-handed around the world by the clipper route in the Gipsy Moth.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: history buffs of all ages, culture vultures, budding paleontologists, scientists and TV presenters, proud Plymothians.
Not for: Erm…I honestly can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t be impressed.
The damage: General admission is free, except for the Mayflower 400:Legend & Legacy exhibition which runs from 29 September 2020 – 18 September 2021 and costs £5 (free for Plymouth residents, under 18s and companions). It’s timed entry so booking is essential.