Image - The Box unveils its impressive collection of 19th century ship’s figureheads.

The Box unveils its impressive collection of 19th century ship’s figureheads.

At the beginning of March, The Box, Plymouth’s new £46 million cultural destination, unveiled its impressive collection of 19th century ship’s figureheads.

The majority of these are on loan from The National Museum of the Royal Navy (NMRN), and 13 are suspended from the ceiling in a striking aerial display.

With funding support from Interreg through its ‘Maritime, Military and Industrial Atlantic Heritage’ (MMIAH) project, Plymouth City Council, National Lottery Heritage Fund and Arts Council England, the figureheads underwent a huge restoration programme before they arrived at The Box.

Plymouth City Council Leader, Tudor Evans OBE said: “The scale of the figureheads is really something to behold, as is the huge amount of vision and work that has taken place to conserve and display them in such a unique way. They’re just awesome.”

As the exhibition designers across all aspects of the project, the challenging task of researching and developing the flotilla concept fell to us, Abby Coombs, our Project Lead working on The Box explained:

“Very early on in the project we saw the figureheads in their old home at the Devonport Dockyard. The contrast with their surroundings was striking – inside this unassuming engine house were these huge objects that spoke so much about Plymouth’s heritage, its relationship to the sea, and its role as a gateway to the rest of the world. We were developing our design vision for The Box, and felt immediately the figureheads needed a starring role.

As we worked with the architects on the layout of the new building, we began to realise the potential of the new atrium. The space is triple-height and filled with light, and this gave us the idea of positioning the figureheads up high, as though they were still on the prows of a flotilla of great ships gliding in from Plymouth harbour. This was challenging, as we would need to suspend some figures from the ceiling and mount others from the floor. It meant undertaking detailed surveys with the Devonport Naval Heritage Centre to see what was possible.

We collaborated with structural engineers to develop a system of mounts and suspension points that were fixed directly into the atrium ceiling. Meanwhile, the conservation team had assessed the figureheads for structural integrity and they then began a programme to stabilise them and fit them with the internal and external supports we needed to put them in position. They also researched how the objects were originally decorated so they could restore them to their former glory. Lastly, we worked with a specialist mount-maker so that the visible fittings are as discreet as possible. The end result uses an elegant system of mounts and suspension points that are fixed directly to the ceiling, with fittings that are visibly discreet but robust enough to hold each figurehead’s weight.

Putting together this display has a been a real team effort – we’ve had the support of great specialists, plus the expertise of our contractors, the installation team and everyone from The Box. It’s been wonderful seeing our vision come to life. We’re really pleased with the results.”

The figureheads captured the attention of the press and media with coverage across many BBC Radio channels and in The Times, Telegraph, Guardian, Daily Express and many more.