Orbis are currently working on an exciting project with Plymouth City Council Arts and Heritage. The Box Plymouth, a new arts and heritage complex that will combine the City Museum, Library buildings and St Luke’s Church is opening in spring 2020 showcasing Plymouth’s visual arts, media, heritage and archives as part of the city’s Mayflower 400 celebrations.
A key element in the new permanent exhibitions will be the redisplay of 14 large nineteenth century ships’ figureheads on loan from the National Museums of the Royal Navy. Prior to being displayed indoors, the timber carvings were displayed outside for many years. In the 1950s and ‘60s they were restored by untried methods including coating the decorative carved and painted surfaces with glass reinforced plastic. Over the years, failure of the resin coatings has led to water ingress causing deterioration and decay to the internal timber structure and potential corrosion of hidden iron fixings. The brightly painted resin coatings appear relatively intact however, disguising timber shrinkage and decay and obscuring the highly detailed original carving of the original sculptures.
The display design concept is also an exciting element. Several of the figureheads will be suspended within the main entrance and atrium of The Box in a huge sweep that appears to sail across the front glazed façade from left to right. The remaining figureheads, including the largest, ‘Royal William’, will be floor mounted.
Each figure will require full conservation, consolidation and restoration alongside a redesign of the existing mounting systems to facilitate suspension of the objects by steel cables. We will be conserving 5 of the figureheads in the collection, including Royal William. We want to secure their long term future by undertaking a sensitive conservation and restoration programme to significantly widen public access and understanding of both the actual and symbolic importance of these polychrome wooden sculptures in relation to Plymouth’s naval heritage.