The David Livingstone Birthplace Museum has been nominated for best Permanent Exhibition at the Museums + Heritage Awards 2022, following a £9.1 million investment programme awarded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Historic Environment Scotland and The Scottish Government.
Known as the ‘Oscars of the museums world’, the Museums + Heritage Awards celebrate the very best in the world of museums, galleries, cultural and heritage visitor attractions, gathering entries from all across the world, to win one of their prestigious accolades.
David Livingstone was a Scottish physician and pioneering Christian missionary with the London Missionary Society. From his humble beginnings working in the Blantyre, he became a life-long abolitionist and well-respected explorer in Africa.
His extraordinary story transformed him into one of the most celebrated British figures of the Victorian era and his legacy lives on to this day, in Scotland’s lasting relationships with many African countries and in Black Scottish history.
The newly reopened David Livingstone Birthplace Museum, located on the site of the former Blantyre Cotton Works, where David Livingstone was born and raised, has undergone a transformative refurbishment and reinterpretation project.
The museum offers visitors a more in-depth perspective on the story of Livingstone, using its globally significant collection to reframe Livingstone’s achievements, his failures, and the opportunity his story holds to encourage a deeper understanding of marginalised histories and Scotland’s role in slavery and colonisation.
The small and independent David Livingstone Trust, which owns and manages the museum is Scotland’s only nomination in the category, reflective of how positively the project reinterpretation has been received for its recontextualization of slavery and colonialism, and Scotland’s role in it and the national and international significance of the collection.
The museum refurbishment involved essential repairs to Shuttle Row and the major upgrading of the visitor experience.
The new permanent exhibition includes world-class interpretation and exhibits more than 40% of the museum’s collection of over more than 4,000 objects, this is an increase of 30% from what was displayed before.
Items featured in the exhibition include Livingstone’s internationally important letters and journals, the red shirt the explorer was wearing when he first met Henry Morton Stanley in 1871 and objects belonging to two of Livingstone’s most well-known crew members, Abdullah Susi and James Chuma.
Highlights of the reinterpretation include Tales from the Tableaux, an audio-visual experience which draws from the restored Pilkington Jackson Tableaux - eight unique plaster sculptures first created in 1929 for the museum’s first opening by prominent 20th Century British sculptor Charles d’Orville Pilkington Jackson, which depict scenes from Livingstone’s life in Southern and Central Africa.
In Tales of the Tableaux, the hidden histories of unknown Southern and Central Africans are brought to life in an animated screenplay by Zimbabwean author Petina Gappah.
While the sculptures draw on imagery typical to the era in which they were created, these animations give voice to those who supported and worked with Livingstone – including Motshipi, one of the wives of Chief Sechele I of the BaKwena, Paulo Molehane, James Chuma and Mjakazi.
The animations were commissioned to complement the wider exhibition, highlighting the contribution of the men and women that aided Livingstone’s expeditions as well as allowing those affected by the activities of the missionaries, the East African Slave Trade and European colonisation to share their stories.
In addition, a new dedicated display has been introduced to Livingstone’s leading crew members from Southern Africa, Abdullah Susi, from today’s Mozambique and James Chuma, from today’s Malawi and a special Legacy Space, that presents the impact Livingstone continues to have on the Sub-Saharan countries that he visited in his lifetime, with interviews from individuals from Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Scotland, created in partnership with Scotland Malawi Partnership (SMP).
The exhibition has been praised by the National Lottery Heritage Fund for its “richer, more representative picture of David Livingstone’s story” – particularly for shifting the focus of Livingstone from that of a 'Lone White Explorer', as was the late 19th and early 20th century interpretation, to instead highlighting the contribution of Southern and Central African crew members who made his expeditions possible and the Sub-Saharan Africans he met and worked with.
The museum is continuing its role as a platform for discussion of the Livingstone story with a developing programme of events and community engagement and outreach.
The museum aims to reach people all over the globe with their online Contradictions Campaign, which considers Livingstone in all the roles that he played – from man of science to man of God, from activist to bystander- his flaws, as well as his achievements.
David Livingstone Birthplace Museum is now open seven days a week from 10am. Guided tours operate every Wednesday, Friday and Sunday at 11am. The tour will last around 60 minutes.
Grant MacKenzie, Director and Trustee at David Livingstone Birthplace Musuem and David Livingstone Trust said: “We are delighted to be recognised by the Museums and Heritage Awards as one of the best Permanent Exhibitions this year. This recognition is truly reflective of the importance of Livingtone’s story for the modern day.’
“When many of the books about Livingstone were initially written, there wasn’t much information about the people he met and worked with in Africa. Some of them weren’t named, some of them weren’t even written about.
“We have found out lots more about them since then, and the reinterpretation of the collection is much more reflective of the real experiences Livingstone had. In the new museum we show how Livingstone successfully collaborated with the local people he met to achieve his great feats of exploration.
“We have endeavoured to represent Livingstone’s interest in aspects of the local cultures that he encountered on his travels across the African continent and give space to show the valuable friendship he made during his journeys. Wherever possible, we have tried to humanise Livingstone showing his flaws as well as his greatest qualities
“Livingstone’s stories set Scotland in a strong global context, provide connections to international communities and links to contemporary issues including equality and diversity, globalisation, capitalism and human impact on the environment - offering the museum as an essential space for discussion and debate.”
Professor Sir Geoff Palmer, Chancellor of Heriot-Watt University and member of the David Livingstone Birthplace Museum Advisory Panel said: “I am delighted that the David Livingstone Birthplace Museum has been nominated for this important award which recognises the national and international importance of the life story it contains’.
History and education go together and this can be seen at this museum. Seventy years ago as a boy in Jamaica, my aunts insisted that I attended church three times every Sunday.
“The story of David Livingstone’s life as a missionary and explorer was told frequently. This helped to shape my values and my education. Therefore, it was a dream come true when I visited this museum in Blantyre near Glasgow’.
“The Africa stories about David Livingstone which changed my life are still there but now in greater glorious detail. A warm welcome awaits all visitors”.