On 16 September 1620, 102 passengers and 30 crew aboard the Mayflower sailed from the port of Plymouth, Devon, bound for the ‘New World’. There they would secure their place in US history as the ‘Pilgrims’, the Puritan founders of only the second successful English settlement in America. Four hundred years on, their world-changing voyage to present-day Massachusetts has become part of America’s foundation myth – so it is appropriate that it is now the subject of a major exhibition being staged as the centrepiece of the opening programme at The Box, Plymouth’s new, £46m museum and cultural hub.
Co-curated by an advisory committee representing the Wampanoag Nation (the Native Americans who signed a treaty with the Pilgrims), the large and ambitious opening exhibition, entitled Mayflower 400: legend and legacy, tells the story of the voyage and assesses the impact of the settlers’ arrival on the indigenous population. Among 300 items on display, loaned from museums, libraries, and archives around the world, are original documents; objects from the time, such as arrowheads and fishing weights; and the John Eliot Bible (the first complete Bible to be published in America). The arrival of some exhibits from the US was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic. At the exhibition’s opening, for example, the Second Peirce Patent (above right) – the 1621 document that gave the Pilgrims permission to colonise Plymouth, Massachusetts – had to be represented by a facsimile, pending the safe arrival of the newly restored parchment from Pilgrim Hall Museum in Massachusetts.
The Box – which takes its name from the striking aluminium structure that now appears to hover over the city’s restored Museum and Art Gallery – was originally scheduled to open in March. Construction was interrupted by COVID-19, however, and the complex was finally able to open its doors to visitors in late September, enabling at least part of the city’s planned commemorations of the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower sailing to take place in the appropriate year. The building brings together six collections and two million holdings under one roof, with permanent exhibits ranging from a full-size woolly mammoth, part of the city’s 150,000-strong natural history collection, to historic and contemporary painting. In the spirit of the Black Lives Matter movement, the curators have been careful to put into context the many exhibits relating to the city’s maritime heritage as a hub of empire.
The building’s new glass atrium hosts an undoubted highlight for visitors: a display of 19th-century monumental ships’ figureheads, suspended in an aerial flotilla (left). Originally attached to ships that voyaged to Easter Island (bringing back sculptures now housed in the British Museum), took part in the First and Second China (or Opium) Wars, and fought pirates in West Africa, these impressive characters reflect the richness of Plymouth’s maritime heritage. The 14 giant figures – the largest, belonging to HMS Royal William (or ‘King Billy’), stands more than 4m tall – had been subject to a two-year restoration. At least one of the gloriously gaudy sculptures (that belonging to HMS Topaz) was discovered to have rot over 90% of its wooden structure: conservators used sonic tomography to detect decay and cavities within, and were thus able to replace rotten material.
With its dizzying array of exhibits, The Box is not only Britain’s biggest museum-building project of 2020, but also a powerful symbol of the Plymouth’s regeneration.
IMAGES: Wayne Perry; Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, MA, USA.