South Western Federation of Museums and Art Galleries

Blog: 'The Box - Launching a Cultural Venue During Lockdown'

The Box from Tavistock Place. Image by Paul White Photography


In this blog post, Fiona Pitt discusses the impact of the lockdown during a planned opening of new cultural venue, The Box. Fiona shares what the team behind The Box did to create an alternative programme to suit the restrictions, and what they have learnt to be able to inform their work when the pandemic is over.


Like many of the best laid plans for 2020, the official opening of The Box, Plymouth, didn’t happen in quite the way we anticipated.

The Box was due to open on Saturday 16 May, and the weeks before the COVID-19 lockdown saw staff continue working at full tilt to ensure that everything would be ready for the big day. Contractors were on site, stores were being filled and galleries had started to be installed. Visits were being made by stakeholders and sponsors to see work in progress. After years of preparation, everything was starting to fall into place.

In the face of a global pandemic, there is little to do but stay calm and carry on the best you can. Like many other institutions, The Box has embraced new methods which allow us to work remotely, including taking our meetings online. The majority of staff have full access to their computer accounts and databases and are fully equipped for remote working. And there’s no shortage of work that can be done at home. For example, staff have been finalising content for gallery interactives and putting together alternative digital learning events, as well as tackling long overdue items on the perennial ‘to do’ list. Some dedicated individuals have also been carefully checking all is well with the buildings and collections.


The Box - Mammoth Install. Image by Wayne Perry

In terms of our online offer, we’ve launched a collecting call out, a photography competition, curriculum challenges for children who are home schooling, music and contemporary art commissions. We’ve also successfully run this year’s Plymouth History Festival online.

The vast majority of our work is always supported by online activity, but moving (temporarily) to a fully virtual approach is a change in approach. We’re still in the process of gathering up statistics but the responses we’ve had to date have been great, suggesting that people are still keen to engage with The Box and eager for creative content and opportunities. Our contemporary art commissions call out received over 200 applications (for 20 bursaries!) and running the History Festival online has enabled us to broaden our reach and connect with people who wouldn’t usually get involved with a physical festival. There are lessons to be learnt from this going forward in terms of how we ‘blend’ our digital and physical offers – although the ability for visitors to interact in a real location and engage with real objects will always be our unique selling point.

Work towards physically opening is partially completed, ready to be finalised when our staff can safely work on site once more. COVID-19 restrictions mean that they will need to be able to do this work while still practising social distancing. For example, working alongside mount makers and installing objects in display cases will be particularly challenging. Additional consideration is also required for international contractors and partners. Many important loans had been on the verge of transportation prior to lock-down. And of equal importance, a huge amount of thought is being given to how visitors can safely enjoy The Box once we can open.


The Box - Figureheads Reveal. Image by Wayne Perry

In the meantime, our original opening date was marked with a special digital programme. This included videos exploring our journey so far, virtual opportunities to see recent progress behind the scenes, competitions, and even a digital cocktail-making demonstration, courtesy of The Box Kitchen + Bar.

If we’d been opening as planned our digital content would have formed part of our build up and launch communications so this was also a change of approach. We used our Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube channels to share content as widely as possible and also ran some PR in advance which resulted in some great coverage on social media, local radio and TV to help build anticipation. It was a bittersweet weekend for our staff who were obviously very disappointed to not launch as planned and who are dealing with the ongoing challenges of working remotely. However, it was also a chance for us to reflect and feel proud about how far we’ve come and what we’ve already achieved.

Currently, we have no confirmed date for our official opening, but we hope to be able to announce this soon, so please continue to check our website and social media for updates. One day in the not too distant future we look forward to welcoming everyone through our shiny new doors.

To find out more about The Box, please visit: www.theboxplymouth.com

About the Writer:

Fiona Pitt is Curator of Archaeology at The Box (Plymouth City Council), and Devon County Rep for the South West Fed.