Museums across Scotland celebrate bicentenary of David Livingstone

By Jenni Davidson | 21 March 2013

Event preview: David Livingstone bicentenary, various venues, Scotland, until December 24 2013

A photograph of a display case with an African landscape behind it
Transport and Travel in Dr Livingstone, I Presume? at the National Museum of Scotland© National Museums Scotland
This week is the bicentenary of the birth of Scottish explorer, medical missionary and anti-slavery campaigner David Livingstone.

One of the great 19th century heroes of the Christian faith, his life used to be a favourite of Sunday schools across the country, but he may be less familiar to younger generations now.

Not so in Africa, where he is still fondly remembered in the countries he visited - Malawi, South Africa, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe - with streets, schools and public buildings named after him.

In Malawi, two towns - Livingstonia and Blantyre - are named in his honour, and there is still a special relationship between Scotland and Malawi today that dates back to Livingstone’s time there.

David Livingstone was born on March 19 1813 to a poor family in Blantyre, near Glasgow, and from the age of 10 he worked gruelling 14-hour days in a cotton mill.

He had no regrets about this difficult early life. "Looking back now on that life of toil, I cannot but feel thankful that it formed such a material part of my early education," he reflected.

Indeed, these humble beginnings may have prepared him well for the life that followed.

A photograph of David Livingstone
David Livingstone's carte de visite© National Museums Scotland
David Livingstone was determined to become a missionary. He saved money to go to medical school at the Andersonian University (now the University of Strathclyde) and also attended theology lectures at Glasgow University.

In 1840, Livingstone set sail for South Africa for the first time. He undertook several expeditions through Africa, spending 30 years there in total, and explored and mapped parts of the continent never seen before by European eyes.

Livingstone became the first European to cross the continent of African from east to west and the first to see Victoria Falls.

He believed that spreading Christianity and improving trade with Africa could end slavery, which he described as "this open sore upon the world". His journals caused so much outrage at home that they eventually led to the abolishment of the East African slave trade.

Failed expeditions up the Zambezi River and in search of the source of the Nile saw him fall out of favour, but when he died of dysentery and malaria in Chief Chitambo’s Village, North Eastern Rhodesia in 1873, two devoted servants brought his embalmed body back to the UK, and he was buried a hero with full honours at Westminster Abbey.

To mark 200 years since his birth, a series of exhibitions and events in both Scotland and Africa throughout 2013 celebrate the life and legacy of this 19th century hero.

Dr Livingstone, I Presume? at the National Museum of Scotland charts the story of Livingstone's life from poverty in Blantyre to pioneer in Africa through his personal possessions, maps, photos, drawings, diaries, tools, clothing and medical equipment.

It also shows some of the mementos that he has inspired, including stamps, films, board games, Ladybird books and even Clydesdale Bank £10 notes.

The David Livingstone Centre in Blantyre, a museum dedicated to Livingstone’s life and work housed in the tenement building that he lived in as a child, is holding three exhibitions as well as a variety of events throughout the bicentennial year.

The Nyangwe Diary: Shining New Light on Livingstone offers an exciting look at a previously illegible diary.

Having run out of paper, Livingstone made an improvised journal from pages of The Standard newspaper and ink made from the seeds of berries.

It was impossible to read the faded writing over the pages of print. But thanks to modern imaging technology, the text of the The Nyangwe Diary has recently been deciphered.

This important document includes an eyewitness account of the massacre of hundreds of African villagers by Arab slave traders.

A photograph of a board game
David Livingstone board game© National Museums Scotland
When Livingstone died, his heart was buried under a tree in present-day Zambia before the body was embalmed. This tree was later chopped down and pieces given away or sold as souvenirs.

Inspired by this, You Took the Part that was Once my Heart, by Dutch artists Sybren Renema and Timmy van Zoelen, is a collection of tree fragments and wooden objects relating to Livingstone, first shown in the 2012 Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art.

Livingstone was a pioneer of tropical medicine, particularly the useof quinine as a treatment for malaria, and Scottish Encounter with Tropical Disease, also on display at the David Livingstone Centre, looks at this work.

Glasgow University, which counts David Livingstone among its alumni, celebrates Livingstone’s legacy of commerce and Christianity - particularly the African Lakes Company, which was founded on David Livingstone’s principles - in Livingstone at the Heart of Africa: a Legacy.

The National Library of Scotland highlights Livingstone’s role, along with artists, engravers and publishers, in the visual representation of the then little-known continent of Africa in Picturing Africa: Illustrating Livingstone’s Travels.

  • Dr Livingstone, I Presume?, National Museum of Scotland, until April 7 2013
  • The Nyangwe Diary: Shining New Light on Livingstone, David Livingstone Centre, Blantyre, until December 24 2013
  • Livingstone at the Heart of Africa: a Legacy, University of Glasgow, Glasgow, April 16-October 31 2013
  • You Took the Part that Once Was my Heart, David Livingstone Centre, Blantyre, May 4-June 7 2013
  • Scottish Encounter with Tropical Disease, David Livingstone Centre, Blantyre, June 8-16 2013
  • Picturing Africa: Illustrating Livingstone's Travels, National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh, June 14-November 3 2013

A full list of events, including the Annual David Livingstone Walk along the River Clyde on May 4, is on the Livingstone 200 website
More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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