The World Cultures collections at The Box were formerly part of the Plymouth City Museum & Art Gallery, which opened in 1910. Most museums in the UK were set up in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when the British Empire was at its most powerful. They took in huge numbers of objects brought home by people who travelled the world for a wide variety of reasons, including trade, missionary and military work, research and tourism. They collected artefacts, whether by purchase or barter, as gifts from people they met, or even as spoils of war, and on their return these were donated, bequeathed or sold to museums. Many of the objects in our care came to us with little or no information. A lot of research work is needed to identify them accurately. For many, we will never know exactly who they came from or how they were collected.
The collections reflect world cultures as they were in the past, not as they are today. We no longer collect artefacts from around the world unless they have a very strong link to Plymouth people in the present day. We aim to make our collections more representative of the city’s communities, but we still have a lot of work to do. We understand that museum collections can play an important part in enabling people around the world to re-connect with their histories, and to shape the future through cultural revival around the world.
Below are details of some of the collections that we know more about. We are open to conversations about the past, present and future of the artefacts in our care. If you have further comments or questions about the World Cultures collection at The Box please contact the Curator of World Cultures
Our most prolific collector, Gertrude Benham, has been called the most widely travelled woman of her time. Benham was a pioneering mountaineer who trekked around the world for 30 years. She bequeathed her worldwide collection of more than 700 items to Plymouth's museum in 1934.
Smaller collections of note include objects from the Lengua people of Paraguay collected by the missionary William Fosterjohn, an outstanding group of argillite carvings from the North West Coast of Canada, an extensive collection of south east African beadwork, and significant material from Polynesia.
The Box holds around 1,400 artefacts from Oceania, which encompasses Australia and New Zealand as well as the island groups of Melanesia, Polynesia and Micronesia.
Pacific highlights include nearly 20 barkcloths from Samoa and elsewhere, over 40 carved wooden clubs from Fiji, significant Aboriginal Australian material, and a carved wooden figure from Easter Island.
The missionary Henry Moore Dauncey’s collection, made around the turn of the 1900s, has been described as one of Britain’s best collections of Papua New Guinean material.
More than 350 varied objects include body ornaments and clothing, weapons and tools, equipment for betel-chewing and tobacco-smoking, and ceremonial and ritual material.
The Box houses around 1,100 artefacts from across Africa. Highlights from Nigeria include an outstanding carved mancala gaming board and several Benin pieces, as well as Yoruba iron-smelting and other metal-working tools. From southeast Africa, the Wright collection comprises over 170 pieces of Zulu beadwork dating from the mid-1900s.
Gertrude Benham brought back dozens of gold-weights from Ghana, as well as jewellery and containers from her epic trek across the continent in 1912-13. Lieutenant Francis Pye returned with 20 items of Hausa warriors’ clothing, horse gear and weapons as spoils of war from the Keffi-Abuja Expedition in Northern Nigeria in 1902.
More than a third of The Box’s 900 Asian artefacts come to us via Gertrude Benham. Her collection is particularly strong in Himalayan, Indian and Tibetan material. Highlights also include textiles and costume, notably finely embroidered Chinese clothing.
In addition, the archaeologist Francis Brent donated around 40 pieces from East Asia, mostly Chinese soapstone figures. The Box holds also metalwork from West Asia, for example a coffee pot from Kuwait.
Among 800 objects from the Americas housed at The Box, nearly 600 come from Central and South America. Of particular significance are over 50 objects from the Lengua people of Paraguay, collected by missionary William Fosterjohn in about 1900.
The Box also holds an outstanding collection from the Canadian Northwest Coast, including 10 argillite carvings made by the Haida people in the mid-1800s.
Top image - A pair of boots worn by explorer Gertrude Benham on one of her global treks
Middle image - A gold weight from Africa