As a resident of Devon for more than 25 years, and a bit of a gallery and museum geek, I can be a bit ‘yes – been there’ sometimes. But Plymouth Museum and Art Gallery is one that had passed me by. I seemed to have a knack of wanting to visit on a Winter Sunday (sorry – not open). Good things come to those who wait, and so I made it to the Gallery on a grey, damp October afternoon.
There was a warm welcome at the front desk and a free map – but it’s a small museum with clear signposting so I would recommend that you just start browsing.
My browsing took me into a section with some fascinating archaeology about Dartmoor including artifacts found at the Whitehorse Hill burial ground. Radio-carbon dating tells us that they date from 1900-1500 BC – at least three and a half thousand years old. The finds, excavated on land owned by the Duchy of Cornwall, included basked, pots, weapons and 200 pretty beads made of clay, shale and more exotic amber. These beads would have once made a pretty glamorous necklace, one that would still look the part even in the 21st Century!
A very pleasant surprise was finding out a bit more about William Cookworthy, a familiar name that features around the area and particularly at the Cookworthy Museum in Kingsbridge. Born in 1705 he was a trained chemist but was also something of an entrepreneur with many business interests; perhaps the Lord Sugar of his day. With trading connections through the port of Plymouth and a passion for the much sought after porcelain arriving from China, he began his search for clay. He found it practically on his doorstep in Cornwall; the high-quality China clay still being mined today. After 20 years of perfecting the art, Plymouth Porcelain went into production and the museum’s collection includes some very pretty examples.
Missing from my browse through the museum and gallery were the ubiquitous rows of oil paintings but, from Bronze age trinkets to delicate 18th Century tableware, my thirst for art, culture and local history was thoroughly quenched. And all for free! When the Government decreed in 2001 that the national museums should be free, they rightly recognised that this would encourage wider access – for the benefit of all concerned. How nice to start your stay in Plymouth with an introduction to its history, port, naval connections, historic characters and its culture. Our regional and local museums are more at the mercy of cash-strapped local authorities so it is a delight that the good guardians of Plymouth consider free access as worthy of support – and long may it continue. Donations are of course always welcome.
Other free to enter museums in Devon include: Axminster Museum, the Museum of Barnstaple and North Devon, Newton Abbot Town and GWR Museum, Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, Topsham Museum and the Torrington Museum and Archive. Find out more about Devon’s museums here.