The David Livingstone Birthplace Museum near Glasgow, which reopened during the summer after a £9.1m redevelopment, has set out to decolonise the narrative surrounding this physician and Christian missionary.
The museum sees itself as “central to discussions around Scotland’s role in slavery and colonisation and how that is represented in our interpretation of David Livingstone’s story”. The website goes on to state: “We embrace that position and are committed to challenging unconscious bias, privilege, apathy and ignorance. We consider all this in relation to understanding Scottish heritage, missionary work, colonial history, and specifically with regard to the untold and contested narratives relating to Black history.”
The museum’s overhaul was conducted during a period of organisational upheaval (a de-coupling from the National Trust for Scotland) and the dislocation of Covid. It has been a highly collaborative project carried out in difficult circumstances. The plan involved trainee schemes and employment opportunities as well as staff, volunteers, academic partnerships and other external professional input.
Livingstone is still a well-known figure in Scotland (he used to be on banknotes) and in sub-Saharan Africa, where he set out to share his colonialist message of “Christianity, Commerce and Civilisation”.
The museum is housed in the building in Blantyre where Livingstone was born. Since 1930, the David Livingstone Trust has cared for the listed building in the Lanarkshire mill town near Glasgow as well as a substantial collection of Livingstone’s possessions and documents along with other objects associated with his life and work. The existence of such a large collection and the preservation of Livingstone’s birthplace reflects and reinforces his status.
Historically, Livingstone has been presented through a colonialist lens – the lone white male explorer fearlessly tackling the unknown. But the revamped museum is now challenging this narrative.
Volunteers, trainees, staff and academics set out to reframe the story of Livingstone’s time in Africa with detailed research into the collections and working to identify the names, identities and stories of the people who have previously been ignored, erased and excluded or viewed through the filter of colonialist stereotypes.
The new museum is divided into three parts – a set of framing questions, which ask you to consider what you already know about Livingstone and whether your understanding has any factual basis; a chronological sweep through his life; and a final gallery that explores Livingstone’s legacy from contemporary African and European perspectives.
Questioning the narratives about Livingstone makes for a bold start and shows the team aren’t afraid to debunk myths. Why is a man who got lost and made costly mistakes known as a great explorer? How can Livingstone be seen as an iconic missionary when he only baptised two people? If he was an abolitionist, why did he get help from slave traders? Why is Livingstone the only person considered a hero in the story?
Is it reasonable to expect visitors to have preconceptions of Livingstone? Blantyre is not a place you stumble on by chance so visitors are either local enough to know the man or interested enough to come – especially as a visit is no longer free to members of the National Trust for Scotland or the National Trust.
The bulk of the experience is the chronological journey that explores Livingstone’s origins and life in great detail. Throughout the exhibition, the museum acknowledges the absence of knowledge, is honest about problematic stories, brings people into the story who have been ignored or marginalised and reflects cultural knowledge from source communities.
The exhibition is content-rich – with 40% more of the collection on display – supported by graphics, hands-on interactives and audio. Creative uses of setwork punctuate the experience. Lines drawn on the walls (inspired by Livingstone’s doodling habits) provide a parallel commentary to the content.
There was a lot to read and look at – more than I could absorb in one visit. I felt that some of the content delivered by interactives might have worked better if it had been digital. As a hearing aid user, the spoken word audio – triggered by sensors and played on speakers – was challenging to hear, particularly when two different tracks played simultaneously.
The last object-based gallery shows a set of plaster tableaux made by sculptor Charles d’Orville Pilkington Jackson in the 1920s to celebrate the life of Livingstone. The pieces present problematic depictions of white men in relation to African women and men. Rather than remove the tableaux, they have been re-imagined by Petina Gappah, an author and Livingstone scholar from Zimbabwe, and presented in a series of animated stories projected on to the walls. Gappah’s work brings to life the unidentified African people, giving them a voice and greater agency in the stories depicted.
Finally, visitors are invited to explore multiple contemporary perspectives on Livingstone’s legacy using a touchscreen of talking heads, which the museum aims to expand over time.
Essentially, the museum has created a new baseline for understanding Livingstone, absorbing its new research into the interpretation and recognising that this is just the start of decolonisation. The challenge for me – as someone with limited knowledge of the man and his life – was being able to appreciate how and where the story has been updated.
To give one example – the museum tells the story of Sechele I, chief of the Bakwena people, who converted to Christianity. The graphic panel discusses the consequences of Sechele’s conversion and his decision to accept the Christian principle of monogamy, despite his reservations. At the time, the chief was in marital unions with Selemeng, Kebalepile, Mokgokong, Motshipi and Modiagape, all women from other powerful families. When Sechele chose to remain in a relationship only with Selemeng, it caused outrage in his community. But despite Sechele being one of only two people converted by Livingstone, it took the museum team a couple of months to identify the names of these women through online research, building a relationship with an academic in the US and getting hold of his publications.
Now that the women are named in the museum, they have a presence in the story and show the destructive consequences of Livingstone’s missionary work on lives and cultures. But should the museum have pointed out that these are new additions to the narrative? Is this a missed opportunity to highlight the process involved in decolonisation and show how much work it takes to research people who had social and political status, let alone those with far less?
As I said earlier, the visit starts with four questions about Livingstone’s status as explorer, missionary, abolitionist and hero. I wonder if referring more overtly to those questions at key points would help visitors to recognise the changing interpretation of Livingstone’s life and how it has been deconstructed and retold by this ambitious project.