Birthplace Project – Multi disciplinary conservation at The David Livingstone Trust, Blantyre

 

 

Hazel Neill writes:

Housed within the walls of the 18th Century cotton mill tenement building, surrounded by parkland on the banks of the River Clyde, the David Livingstone Trust collection is rich in African heritage, Christian missionary material and Scottish social and industrial history. In portraying the remarkable life of Victorian national hero David Livingstone, this collection encapsulates and records aspects of 19th century imperialist Britain and its relationship with Africa.

 

Founded by a Christian charity in 1929 to honour and celebrate Livingstone’s humble beginnings, scientific explorations of Africa and missionary work, the museum has recently been awarded HLF, Scottish Government and HES funding for a major refurbishment of the building and conservation and re-interpretation of the collection. The de-cant of the collection to temporary storage is led  by Project Conservator, Lesley Scott.

 

I was very fortunate to be given a guided tour of the site by Lesley, back in February this year and in this blog post I hope to convey something of Lesley’s work in undertaking this first phase of the Birthplace Project.

 

The listed mill building was harled in concrete in the 1970’s and has many structural problems as a direct consequence. The restoration of the building necessitates the entire collection being moved off-site. It will then be possible to reverse the inappropriate treatments of the past and allow the building to dry out before internal work and eventual re-harling with lime based mortar is carried out.

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Lesley outlined some of the challenges involved in the de-installing, conserving and re-housing the collection, not least regarding the fourteen dioramas by Charles D’Orville Pilkington Jackson. The high relief sculptures, that illustrate important events in the explorer’s life, were inserted into original bed recesses for the mill workers beds within the tight confines of the workers living quarters. The restoration of these painted plaster cast sculptures forms a major focus of the project and is being undertaken by Graciela Ainsworth. As Lesley pointed out, the plaster, glass and wood constructions around the sculptures were ‘built to last’ and have proved very difficult to de-construct.

 

There are three different elements to the collections. The Blantyre Works Collection, David Livingstone Personal Collection and the African Collections with a further Collection of Interest held at the National Library of Scotland.

 

 

Rich in ethnographic material many objects are highly sensitive to environmental and biological agents of deterioration and require careful handling and much consideration in terms of future storage and display.

 

As well as conservation, one of the many challenges of the Birthplace Project is to sensitively re-interprete the collection for a modern audience and, as their website says, to create a ‘place of inspiration to promote dialogue between the people of Scotland and Sub-Saharan Africa’.  There is a powerful and uncomfortable resonance to the slave related artefacts as well as to much of the colonial and missionary material and it will be fascinating to see how this is tackled in the future.

 

The diversity and complexity of Lesley’s work is considerable, taking in all manner of material including costume, paintings, historic metal, ivory, gold and Livingstone’s well travelled scientific and medical equipment.

 

She is undertaking a condition survey and prioritising the most vulnerable objects for conservation and will be seeking tenders from conservators in appropriate fields in due course.

 

 

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