British history has more than its fair share of heroic explorers – people who saw uncharted territories not as challenges, but as unfinished canvasses. With this guided tour through one of the National Museum of Scotland’s newest exhibits, courtesy of the School of Divinity, students enjoying Innovative Learning Week had an opportunity to take a look at the man behind one of Victorian Britain’s most enduring myths.The exhibition, named Doctor Livingstone, I Presume? after the greeting uttered by HM Stanley at their famous meeting in 1871, commemorates the bicentenary of the explorer’s birth in Blantyre, Scotland by focusing upon the motivations of Livingstone, as well as his legacy in Africa and beyond.
As one of the heroic figures of the Victorian period, and as one of the most celebrated Scots of the time, Livingstone set the mould for later explorers such as Robert Scott. As one of the most prolific explorers of his time, his work charting the interior of the African continent proved incredibly useful. Stories of his adventures proved incredibly popular in British society, and Livingstone was characterised as a living legend – a status solidified after his disappearance and death rendered him, at least in the popular imagination, a martyr. The story of his impoverished upbringing is also told, alongside evidence of the religious motivations that first took him to Africa, and the Christian missionary work that he continued with constantly until his death.
This exhibition also seeks to present the different sides to Livingstone’s legacy – the role he played in ending slavery in East Africa, as well as improving attitudes towards indigenous peoples – but also the ways in which his work has been interpreted since his death. Tying together historical ephemera, Hollywood film and some of the personal artefacts Livingstone himself collected, it shows how his myth was used variously to promote and rehabilitate the effects of colonial rule in Africa.