Mayflower. Getty 182781656. The Mayflower II is a replica of the 17th century ship Mayflower, celebrated for transporting the Pilgrims to the New World. The ship is docked at the State Pier in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Plymouth is known for being "America's Hometown" for its great prominence in American history and culture.

It is one of the biggest cultural programmes to have ever taken place in Plymouth: a year-long commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower. With the spotlight firmly on the city and its transatlantic links, the University has been playing a leading role in developing a range of events that reflect upon the historical legacies of the crossing undertaken by the passengers who came to be known as the ‘Pilgrim Fathers’. From musical drama to autonomous marine research vessels, we find out what Mayflower 400 has in store.


It was with a dazzling festival of light that Mayflower 400 was officially launched in November – and it’ll be an even bigger one that brings down the curtain at the close of the programme. From its roots as a lantern parade in the Barbican, Illuminate has grown rapidly in just four years to become a literal and metaphorical beacon of creativity for the city. 

A showcase of light installations, interactive performances, projection mapping and workshops (not to mention food and drink), Illuminate has found a perfect venue in the Royal William Yard, bringing vibrant colour and animation to its immutable Devon limestone granite architecture. It’s been developed by a project team from the University, the Real Ideas Organisation, Plymouth College of Art, and Urban Splash, and it has quickly cemented its place in the city’s calendar – a winter counterpart to the British Firework Championships.

Illuminate 4

“The biggest success has been the way that the city has embraced the festival,” says Professor Chris Bennewith, Head of the School of Art, Design and Architecture, and the University’s lead for Illuminate. “There is a real sense of building social capital here, and people saying ‘this is ours; we have it, it’s not Exeter’s or Bristol’s.’ It’s about civic pride.” 

Chris has seen first-hand the impact that a home-grown cultural entity can have upon the identity of a city. He was part of the team that created the LUX Light Festival in Wellington, New Zealand, which drew crowds in excess of 100,000 people over nine days. And when he moved to Plymouth in 2017, he immediately saw the potential for the city to do something similar. 

"Wellington is roughly the same size as Plymouth, and with similar demographics and natural capital, the potential was immediately apparent,” he says. “In the same way that Vivid Sydney has created satellite points of interest which it then connects into a central festival, so Illuminate is growing and reaching out across the waterfront and into the Sound.” 

For the 2019 event, Illuminate moved beyond the environs of the Royal William Yard to create very different installations at Mount Edgcumbe and the Barbican. It’s an emerging theme as Chris confirms that Drake’s Island and the Plymouth Breakwater could well be included in the 2020 programme. 

"Last year was interesting because it marked the point at which you could no longer see all of Illuminate in one night,” Chris says. “We had these three distinct areas – the festival vibe at Royal William Yard, a magical forest trail at Mount Edgcumbe and a more contemplative art ‘gallery’ in the backstreets of the Barbican. The idea is that we will keep building up without it ever feeling like it is spreading too thin.” 

Student involvement has also been a key ingredient for the development of Illuminate, with undergraduate architects, 3D designers, and art and fine art students from both the University and Plymouth College of Art rubbing shoulders with established international artists. 

“It’s a nice mixture,” adds Chris. “Lots of festivals simply commission work, but Illuminate is bridging across into the wealth of talent we have in the city. It’s another reason why it has become such a key event for Plymouth.”

'Ray of Light' by Paige Alexander, Illuminate 2018, square.
Illuminate 2019. Picture by Antonia Quinn
Illuminate 2019. Picture by Antonia Quinn

Some Call It Home 

“What I wanted to do was offer something to all of us that deals with not just the courageous Atlantic crossing of the Pilgrims, but elements that we can all learn from today,” says Dr Robert Taub, of his multimedia music drama Some Call It Home. “I wanted to take what happened in 1620 and cast it in a light that has direct relevance to our lives.” 

The result is a Mayflower inspired hard-hitting work of art about our relationship with the land, and the competing philosophies of Stewardship versus Dominion. Tracing a narrative through-line from the colonisation of North America to the current climate-change and geopolitics induced mass migration, Some Call It Home combines imagery, video, narration, song and a string orchestra over the course of its 75-minute runtime.

“The drama plays out over nine scenes, each framed around a pivotal figure or event,” Robert says. “For example, the third chapter, Arrival 1620, begins with a libretto using a quote from William Bradford, the second governor of the Plymouth colony and most significant chronicler of the Mayflower narratives, which reads, “God has cleared a space for us in the wilderness”. This is the point where we see the dawn of this conflict of philosophies in relation to the land.” 

Robert, an internationally renowned concert pianist from New York, developed the piece after taking up his post at the University in April 2018. He initially worked with Kathryn Gray, Associate Professor of English, to create a ‘sweeping panorama’ of the Mayflower narrative, and then began an intense process of distilling it into a form that would make ‘an evening of drama’. 

An alumnus of Princeton University and The Juilliard School, as well as a Visiting Professor at Princeton, Robert has worked with two composers – Jane O’Leary, from Galway, Ireland (whose ancestor Richard Warren, 12 generations ago, was on the Mayflower), and Jonathan Dawe, from New York – to develop the music. Randall Scarlata, a leading US baritone, and the Grammy Award-winning soprano Deborah York were the singers / narrators, and nine string members of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra the live music ensemble. And the visual component, which includes maps, photos and video, was created in collaboration with the production team at the Theatre Royal Plymouth.

“I don’t think anything like this – regarding our home, our planet – has been done before involving live music and video and images,” Robert says. “And we’re hoping to share it with many people.” 

And in that act of sharing, what does he hope the audience will take away from Some Call It Home? 

“My hope is that the audience is both moved and inspired,” Robert reflects. “This is not a romantic comedy. It’s taking a key historical event – something so intrinsic to American iconography – and imbuing it with life and relevance for a modern audience. I hope people will ask of themselves, ‘What can we learn from this conflict of philosophy?’ Well maybe we can learn to shepherd our home in a way that will preserve it for the future.” 

Some Call It Home was scheduled to play at the Theatre Royal Plymouth in March 2020, but unfortunately had to be postponed due to the Coronavirus pandemic. New dates will be published as soon as they are known.


Mayflower – the story behind the story 

It is said that there are 25 million people in the world today who claim to be descendants of the Mayflower settlers. By contrast, there may be as few as 5,000 members of the Wampanoag left living in the United States today – the indigenous people who resided in Massachusetts when the colonists arrived. It is a disparity that has helped to shape the dominant Mayflower narrative, which for many years has been framed within a narrow cultural perspective. 

‘Mayflower 400: Legend and Legacy’ is seeking to change that. A national commemorative exhibition that will be in place when The Box opens in spring 2020, it has been created in partnership with the Wampanoag Native American Advisory Committee. The collaboration has not only opened the doors to more than 100 museums, libraries and archives across the UK, USA and the Netherlands, but it has also led to the commissioning of new work from Wampanoag artists.

Getty image 464681370 pilgrims receiving Massasoit
Pilgrims receiving Massasoit

Kathryn Gray, Associate Professor of English, specialising in early American literature, and Jo Loosemore, a BBC journalist and the curator of the exhibition, have worked together for the past two years to construct a narrative around Mayflower that is more nuanced and multi-layered than many traditional retellings of the story. 

“We often see a particular history become dominant over time,” says Kathryn, an expert in transatlantic literature and culture, who has researched and written about many of the key historical texts of the 17th and 18th centuries. 

“And for centuries, Native Americans have been lost in the Anglo-American story of the Mayflower. What we are doing is telling parallel and intersecting stories, which includes their experiences both before 1620 and in the intervening centuries.”

This is particularly the case in a second exhibition in development – ‘Wampum: Stories and Shells from Native America’ – which will tour Lincoln, London and Southampton from April, arriving in Plymouth in September. This represents a first acknowledgement of the cultural connection to the Wampanoag people and will include the commissioning of a new wampum belt, and an opportunity for Wampanoag artists to record, interpret and explore one of the world’s largest collections of wampum belts at the British Museum. 

“This project is about voice, and the story of the story,” says Jo. “If we had only told that dominant, traditional one, we would have done our audience a disservice. What we have is much richer and surprising, but also more troubling and difficult.” 

“Many people have been brought up to think about the Mayflower sailing in a particular way,” adds Kathryn. “I hope that the legacy of Mayflower 400 is that we will never be able to tell the story again without accommodating the perspective of the native people.” 

The Mayflower 400 exhibition will be in residence for 18 months, and will include artefacts sourced from the National Museum of the Native American, Harvard and the Leiden Archives.

Kathryn’s involvement with Mayflower 400 dates back to 2014, when the US Ambassador and his cultural attaché visited the city, even attending Graduation. She has helped to create educational resources for Plymouth City Council and delivered training to the Mayflower Makers volunteer programme. She launched a Mayflower Lecture Series in 2015, attracting renowned speakers such as American chef and historian Dr Lois Ellen Frank, and Mary Nolan, Professor of History at New York University. All of this has contributed to a deeper and broader understanding of Mayflower.

Kathryn Grey

The Mayflower Autonomous Ship 

If Mayflower 400 is primarily a cultural and artistic meditation upon an iconic historical event, there is at least one remarkable project that is flying the flag for science. 

On 6 September 2020, should all go to plan, an unmanned, fully autonomous ship will launch from the city to begin its own voyage towards a new frontier. The Mayflower Autonomous Ship (MAS) will set off for Plymouth, Massachusetts, and en route will conduct a series of experiments, which, if successful, could redefine how marine research is pursued. 

The project was first conceived in 2014, and is being led by ProMare, a non-profit corporation and public charity established to promote marine research and exploration throughout the world. The research element will be coordinated by the University, and Plymouth based MSubs, which has more than 20 years’ experience in mechanical engineering, composites and electronic and software design, is constructing the vessel.

Mayflower Autonomous Ship - Daylight sketch | Image credit: Shuttleworth Design

“This voyage has the potential to be a real game-changer and cements Plymouth’s reputation as a world-leading hub of marine science,” says Professor Kevin Jones, Executive Dean of the Faculty of Science and Engineering at the University. “It gives us the genuine capability to explore new and innovative research opportunities that have not previously been possible. It also raises the bar in terms of autonomous vessels, a world first that could set the standard for others in the field to follow.” 

The trimaran-style vessel will sail using renewable energy and will include three research pods packed with state-of-the-art monitoring equipment. These will include acoustic, nutrient and temperature sensors, along with water and air samplers, that can create a picture of ocean conditions and mammal behaviour right across the Atlantic. 

The hull is being manufactured at a shipyard in Poland and will return to Plymouth this spring for its final outfitting and testing by ProMare and MSubs. And it has also been confirmed that global technology giant IBM will provide the servers, artificial intelligence and cloud-based technology that will help MAS navigate its way across the North Atlantic. 

“The original Mayflower voyage was all about exploration into a new world, and this project is to a large extent the same,” adds Fredrik Soreide, ProMare Project Director. “It takes autonomous marine vessels to a new level and opens up countless scientific possibilities.”



If Mayflower 400 has been a commemoration of an historic event, iMayflower is its legacy for the future. Thanks to a successful bid to the Cultural Development Fund, the city has been awarded £2.75 million (from a total package of £3.5 million) to develop new opportunities, creative spaces and skills for the creative industries. 

For the University, this money will support a range of initiatives, including business support, leadership development and knowledge exchange programmes for the creative sector. There will be a particular focus on skills and learning through the use of the new immersive media and digital fabrication laboratories in the Roland Levinsky Building. And it will also include the launch of ‘Ignite – A Festival of Creativity’, which will bring together the traditional arts degree shows at both the University and Plymouth College of Art to create a month-long celebration and showcase of the city’s artistic talent, supplemented with events, activity, networking and debates.

“The Cultural Development Fund will enable the dynamic fusion of the region’s creative talent and excellent digital resources, with existing strengths in sectors such as healthcare, marine and tourism,” says Professor Chris Bennewith, who is leading the University’s work on iMayflower. “And through Ignite, iMayflower and our wider work to boost the creative economy, we are helping enable more and more of our graduates to remain in Plymouth and use their talents and energy to help the city realise its potential.”