This blog post was written by Thistles & Dandelions volunteer Alessia Bruni after a workshop with the curator at David Livingstone Birthplace Museum. While discovering David Livingstone and Kate Simpson’s research, Alessia also took the opportunity to learn about another T&D volunteer, Lara Lasisi’s experience interning at the museum.
One of the Thistles & Dandelions recent workshops was with the curator Kate Simpson at the David Livingstone Birthplace Museum. She told us about her project at the University of Glasgow entitled Boundaries of gender: ‘petticoat governments’ and secondary voices in nineteenth-century European expeditions of Africa.
“My research looks at manuscripts of 19th-century European exploration in Africa and India. This research is grounded in using XML-TEI from which to develop 19th-century cultural digital content and its subsequent curation; including imaging, data management, transcription, and mapping. I am Project Scholar and UK Outreach Director for Livingstone Online (http://livingstoneonline.org), and a lecturer in the School of Arts and Creative Industries at Edinburgh Napier University. I was recently an MHRA research associate at Queen’s University Belfast, working on a digital edition of explorer and missionary David Livingstone’s Missionary Travels (1857).”
Kate Simpson’s project at IASH, the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, brought into the foreground the many women, both European and African, who assisted and enabled David Livingstone (1813-1873) in his journeys in Africa, specifically during the Second Zambesi expedition (1858 -1864).
One of the interns at the David Livingstone Birthplace Museum is Lara Lasisi, who is also my fellow volunteer in Thistles & Dandelions. She belongs to the Yoruba, an ethnic group who reside in South Western Nigeria. One of the most well-known Yoruba is Wole Soyinka, who won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1986. Yoruba people are famous for their dress sense, and all kinds of art and culture.
The programme of Lara’s traineeship aimed to increase diversity in the heritage sector by providing training to become museum professionals. In the beginning, she was a volunteer and her role focused on organising different workshops on social enterprise and employability topics. Through this experience, she witnessed how members within the African, Caribbean, and Black and Ethnic Minority communities acquired the knowledge, skills, and experience necessary to shape a sustainable future in Scotland and forge a sense of belonging.
After volunteering, she started her traineeship based at the David Livingstone Birthplace Museum focused on three main areas: Collection and Conservation, Community Engagement, and Research.
The first part of the traineeship was centred on Collections and Conservation. She learned how museums manage their collections according to best practice and accreditation standards. She studied how to catalogue objects using unique identification numbers assigned to individual objects within a collection. This number is attached to a computer record which is created on the museum’s Collections Management System, Modes. The record is filled with relevant accompanying documentation, photographs, and condition assessments.
Throughout her traineeship, she also gained a number of object conservation skills. She attended training and undertook practical experience on the conservation of wood, object packing, and object handling. She had also the responsibility of safeguarding the collection from pests, and she spent time shadowing a paintings conservator.
The second area of this traineeship was Community Engagement: she has played a key role in the Museum’s community engagement plan. She attended the Lanarkshire Family History Fair, a workshop with the Association of Malawians in Scotland and she presented at Museums Galleries Scotland’s Decolonising Your Museum workshop. Over the year, the event she enjoyed attending the most was the Blantyre Summer and Christmas Gala Days, which was a very colourful carnival. She created networks with the Museum’s local audience and the other shareholders.
Finally, the third and the last area of this experience was the Research: During her traineeship, she also undertook a substantial independent research project. Her research focused on the use of medicine during Livingstone’s second expedition to the Zambezi. For this project, She gathered a timeline of medical-related events over course of the Expedition. She also did in-depth research on tropical medicine and researched related objects in the Museum’s collection.
The first object she researched was a pocket surgical case that belonged to Livingstone. This case contained a range of knives used for surgery on varicose veins and haemorrhoids, tweezers and needles used for suturing or passing a ligature around an artery as well as a thermometer.
She also researched the museum’s bottle of Livingstone’s Rouser which Livingstone invented to treat malaria. The Rousers’ ingredients include resin of jalap, rhubarb, calomel, and quinine. Livingstone tested the pill format later but administered Rouser during the Zambezi Expedition as a tonic by boiling the ingredients. This tonic was prescribed once symptoms had already started. The tonic sometimes helped people recover but their ability to fight the disease depended on the existing state of their health.
Overall, this kind of training program is able to succeed in breaking barriers and building a sense of belonging. The opportunity this traineeship gave to Lara Lasisi was to share her opinion and beliefs about the way the museum is run in order to enhance the future experiences of other African diaspora members.
I was deeply interested in David Livingstone, and a little bit sorry to miss the opportunity a few months ago to be a volunteer for them, but it’s better to not “put too much meat on the fire”, (in English we can translate this to: “don't juggle too many things at once", or "don't bite off more than you can chew"), as my father always said to me when he was still alive. I am a volunteer for Empower Women for Change and it is a really good opportunity for me.
As Kate Simpson told us during our meeting, David Livingstone was a missionary who travelled all around the world, but he lived predominantly in many countries in Africa, such as South Africa, Malawi, Tanzania, and the Congo. Livingstone was from a bilingual family where he was able to talk and understand Gaelic and English from childhood, [for this reason] this helped him to learn many native languages in Africa and he was able to talk and communicate with both the old and the young.
David Livingstone was a complex and sometimes contradictory character, while his writings against slavery helped influence public support for abolition, he benefitted from the slave trade and was a key figure in the colonisation of Africa.
We were also told of friendships between Livingstone, Robert Stevenson Baden-Powell the pioneer of the Scouts, and Thomas Baines the artist. Both Livingstone and Baden-Powell spent their own life trying to make this world better than they found it, and their mutual friendship with an artist like Thomas Baines shows us the importance of art in this too, and that earth without art is just “eh”.
Thanks to the staff of Empower Women For Change for this great opportunity to discover these personalities from Scotland to Africa!