London: exhibition marks David Livingstone bicentenary

David Livingstone

David Livingstone

SOAS, University of London marks the bicentenary of the birth of the missionary and explorer, Dr David Livingstone, with an exhibition at the Brunei Gallery, 22 October 2013 - 22 March 2014.

The show will bring together, for the first time, rarely seen letters, photographs, maps and artefacts, including a set of surgical instruments thought to have belonged to this iconic figure.

Lionised for decades after his death, Livingstone's reputation has come to be viewed more critically in recent times. But he remains one of the best known British explorers and humanitarian campaigners of the 19th century, famed for his extensive travels through Africa, his campaign against the slave trade, and for the rich archival legacy that he left behind. He was also a missionary and devout Christian, for whom 'the end of the geographical feat is but the beginning of the missionary enterprise'.

Taking as its focus Livingstone's early years as a missionary (1840-1856), this exhibition explores the life and afterlife of this multi-faceted and controversial man. As well as looking at his career against the wider historical context, the exhibition examines in detail some of the important personal relationships that developed between Livingstone and key African figures of the period, and more broadly at the African response to 19th century evangelical mission.

In life, Livingstone was criticised for his failure to make converts, for being a poor expedition leader and for making crucial strategic and geographical errors. And yet he was also celebrated in his time as an intrepid pioneer, the epitome of self-help, the Christ-like martyr who ultimately gave his life in his efforts to spread the word of God. Since his death, Livingstone's famous call for Africa to be opened up to "commerce, Christianity and civilisation" has been levelled against him.

He has been blamed for paving the way for the 'Scramble for Africa' and the legacy of colonial rule that followed. As inspiration for the large numbers of missionaries who subsequently went to Africa, he has been linked to cultural imperialism. In his emphasis upon slavery, he has been criticised for creating the image of Africa as the hopeless continent, constantly in need of external aid and humanitarian intervention.

Can one man be responsible for so much? Does he deserve his reputation as an evangelist of empire?

SOAS will stage the exhibition in the Foyle Special Collections Gallery of the Brunei Gallery as part of the Livingstone 200 events taking place in the UK, Zambia and Malawi.

A one-day symposium will formally launch the Exhibition: SOAS Centre of African Studies hosts' The Life and Afterlife of David Livingstone' on Tuesday 5 November 2013.

This event will bring together a number of leading experts across a range of fields, including specialists on nineteenth- and twentieth-century Africa, the history of Christian missions, and the cultural and political history of empire, as well as on Livingstone himself. The aim of the symposium is to present the latest research on Livingstone as man and icon, and to examine his life and work in the context of African and imperial history.

Share this story