Safeguarding Important Collections for Future Generations

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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) have 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 panel – 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.

Over the next few months 24,000 boxes – the equivalent to more than two miles of archives – will be moved to The Box from Clare Place which has served as the home of the Plymouth and West Devon Record Office since 1982. They will be joined by the city’s Local Studies reference collection, the South West Image Bank, the South West Film and Television Archive – the largest regional archive of its kind in the UK – and the natural history, human history and art collections from the Museum and Art Gallery. They’ll all be housed in an environment fit for the 21st century thanks to a building management system designed to stabilise the temperature if the archive at all times.

In total, 2,177,516 objects will be moved into The Box as part of the fit-out and installation programme known as the ‘re-load’ that will take place in late 2019 and early 2020. As a pioneer for the conservation of Plymouth’s heritage, The Box is a new ‘safe home’ for significant archival objects including the Plymouth Bomb Book, which evidences the most destructive raids of the Second World War, the Queen Mary Charter, which dates from 1554 and is the oldest surviving original royal charter for Plymouth, and the Elizabethan document dating from 1587 that gave Sir Francis Drake permission to set sail ‘for the honor and safetie of our Realmes and Domynions’.

In this innovative new visitor destination, archives, film, works of art and objects will come together, blending technology and tradition to create an exceptional, immersive and fun environment. Special objects and artefacts include 150,000 natural history specimens, a 3D print of a 35,000-year-old cave lion skeleton (the only one on display in the UK), the oldest ‘coat’ in Europe (a Bronze age bear pelt) and the world’s oldest-known pasty recipe.

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Visitors will instantly be drawn in by the glazed façade of The Box, made up of 149 panes of glass, as they see a dramatic suspended ‘flotilla’ of fourteen 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 façade 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 historic 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 2,000 volumes, 100 Old Master drawings and 3,000 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 historic 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. Established in 1852, it has successfully delivered many high quality building projects in a wide range of sectors including the fit-out of a new home in London for the Design Museum and the refurbishment of the Victorian-era Alexandra Palace.

Leading exhibition designers Event Communications have assisted in converting the existing buildings into 3,500m2 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 café.

The fit-out of The Box is led by specialist contractors The Hub who have worked with globally-important museums such as the Victoria and Albert Museum for their David Bowie exhibition – the V&A’s most successful exhibition ever.

Robert Woolcock, Director, Willmott Dixon said: “The Box is so much more than a construction project – its an opportunity to bring Plymouths past into the present and create a legacy for the future. In addition to delivering the fantastic building, we are delighted that the project has provided 1325 weeks of work for apprentices, provided over 28 weeks of work experience, and inspired the next generation of construction professionals through 23 school engagements.

We are very proud to have been involved in this landmark project that supports and preserves Plymouths history and culture for new generations as well as providing an iconic attraction for visitors.”

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