Focus on Africa in reopened David Livingstone Birthplace - Museums Association

Focus on Africa in reopened David Livingstone Birthplace

The £9.1m transformation highlights the explorer’s expedition crew
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Eleanor Mills
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The David Livingstone Birthplace Museum reopened this week
The David Livingstone Birthplace Museum reopened this week Photo by Kat Gollock

Fifty objects of African origin have gone on display for the first time at the David Livingstone Birthplace in Blantyre, South Lanarkshire, which reopened to the public this week.

The landmark redevelopment has been led by the museum director, Grant MacKenzie, who will speak about the project at the Museums Association’s event, Amazing Spaces: Designing Great Exhibitions, on 16 September.

The museum has undergone a £9.1m transformation to bring the former Blantyre Works Mill, on the banks of the River Clyde, up to date. The site now offers a brand new exhibition space in the historic tenements, a refurbished shop and cafe, children’s play park, and 11 hectares of free-to-access parkland.

The Scottish explorer David Livingstone was raised at the mill in the 19th century. Born in 1813, Livingstone was a physician and Christian missionary who became a lifelong anti-slavery campaigner, abolitionist and explorer in Southern and Central Africa.

Visitors will be presented with the 21st-century legacy of Livingstone’s story, told from multiple perspectives and in the context of discussions around the impact of the European colonisation of Africa.

A key aim of the museum’s new displays was to tell not only tell the story of Livingstone himself, but of those around him who were crucial to his expeditions in Africa.

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A dedicated display highlights Livingstone’s crew members from Southern Africa, including Abdullah Susi (from today’s Mozambique) and James Chuma (from today’s Malawi). Both Susi and Chuma were crucial to Livingstone’s expeditions and were extremely close associates.  

Black and white photos of Abdullah Susi and James Chuma (L) and the museum’s Expedition Room (R)Kat Gollock

Also presented in the museum is the diary of Jacob Wainwright, who was born near Lake Nyasa in East Africa. Wainwright was a young crew member who played a prominent role in Livingstone’s story, particularly following his death, when he was instrumental in transporting the explorer’s body and possessions back to the UK. Wainwright was a pallbearer for Livingstone’s funeral in Westminster Abbey in 1873.

Another key feature of the museum is the Legacy room, which presents the impact that the explorer continues to have on the sub-Saharan countries that he visited in his lifetime. A series of talking head interviews with individuals from Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Scotland have been created in partnership with the Scotland Malawi Partnership. The videos focus on Livingstone’s ongoing legacy relating to faith, anti-racism, the story of Africa and his impact on colonialism.

The museum also features the newly restored Pilkington Jackson Tableaux sculptures, which were commissioned for the museum’s original opening in 1929 and created by British sculptor Charles d’Orville. They depict eight scenes from Livingstone’s life and have been scripted by the celebrated Zimbabwean author, lawyer and Livingstone scholar Petina Gappah. The restoration of this significant tableaux aims to illustrate the often unrecognised contributions made by Livingstone’s crew towards his explorations.

The newly restored Pilkington Jackson Tableaux Kat Gollock

Grant MacKenzie, the director of David Livingston Birthplace, said: "We hope to offer new perspectives on the supposed ‘lone explorer’ narrative and reveal the man behind the myth. Our new focus on the stories of the extraordinary sub-Saharan African men and women in his crew is at the heart of the museum's transformation [and help] to situate Livingstone's story within the context of Black history and Scotland's role in colonisation."

The regeneration has been funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Scottish Government, Historic Environment Scotland and South Lanarkshire Council.

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