Black History Month Special With S. I. Martin
In this episode S. I. Martin (Author and Historian), Natalie Milor (Curator) and Alasdair Campbell (Communities and Partnership Development Officer) discuss the newly re-opened DLB museum in the context of Black History Month.
The group discuss the redevelopment process and why this work is vital within the museum sector and the wider social and political context. They consider what more must be done to open up collections and archives to communities and the importance of championing overlooked narratives of Black History. They also explore topics including decolonisation, why 'woke' culture receives so much criticism and what should be next for DLB.
Alasdair: Thanks for joining us today at David Livingstone Birthplace Museum in Blantyre during Black History Month. My name is Alasdair Campbell, I am Communities and Partnerships Development Officer. I am joined by S. I. Martin, Author and Historian and Natalie Milor, our Curator. So we are here today to discuss the newly re-opened David Livingstone Birthplace Museum in the context of Black History Month. To start us off Steve, I wonder if you could tell us what Black History Month means to you and why it is important?
S. I. Martin: Well it means a lot to me in many positive and negative ways. Negatively of course, because it prompts the question, why is there one in the first place, why do we have a Black History Month? The answer to those questions aren’t always heartening. Obviously this month of October in the UK has been prompted by the absence of attention, lack of attention, low profile, often no profile to particular histories, histories of black people in the UK and in these islands. And particular ways of looking not just at Black History but also at white British histories almost as if they are exclusive as if there are no links or connections or implicit co-extensions between them.
So that is the main reason why there is one. Its positive of course because since 1986-7 in this country 1926 in the United States, then formally from 1970 there has been that yearly celebration of Black History Month. In these islands it is really interesting to see how that has developed from initially what had been a very lazy approach to the month, i.e. a cut and paste of African American histories, a bit of face paint and maybe some drumming and someone cooking rice and peas in a community centre (laughing) to what it is now. Something which is a lot more challenging, rather than comforting and in these islands is something much more based on the histories that confront us every day, so yeah more challenging which is a good thing.
Alasdair: Ok yeah thanks very much, I suppose that is quite a good starting point for us in how we might discuss the recent redevelopment here at the David Livingstone Birthplace Museum. So Natalie you joined the project in the early stages in 2017 and we re-opened to the public over the Summer, I wonder if you could talk us through the redevelopment process, some of the changes made and how it was done in practical terms?
Natalie: So the project was 9.1 Million redevelopment project that was sponsored by the National Lottery Fund, Historic Environment Scotland and Scottish Government and the whole point behind it was to refurbish what had become quite a tired museum.
So in terms of how the museum was previously the actual building itself was shuttle row where Livingstone was born, the weavers cottages which sit alongside as the centre and these buildings were physically crumbling. They were poorly built when they were built in the 18th century and they have maintained that standard of being really hard to maintain since then. So the whole point was to get the museum building as well as the interpretation and the design to be up to standard, up to scratch and refreshed for 21st century audiences.
Previously the museum hadn’t been refurbished since the 1980s and it had been quite sporadic. It had been redeveloped sporadically at points thereafter though hadn’t been a complete refresh in terms of the way the stories told and previously as well we had a series of 8 show cases all based roughly thematically too, which made it very difficult reflect the true reality of the story. Whereas now we have much more museum show cases on display, like 28 and through that we are able to use our extended museum which is about a third larger than it was. And we are now telling Livingstone’s story in chronological order. Which means we can therefore have a more through telling of Livingstone’s story.
Alasdair: So within the re-development project, we also took on an Expert Advisory Group that Steve, you were a part of, I wonder if you could tell us a bit about the group and what you see as the role of the group within the redevelopment and the museum in a wider sense?
S. I. Martin: Right well my introduction to the group was hesitant, it took me some time to be comfortable in the group which was really there to act as guides and sort of lightning rods in a sense to what was and will continue to be a very difficult and fraught process of changing some of the narratives within and around the museum. Some of its exhibition, how its collections are used, it's a lot of work and it did require, and I think will continue to require, guidance from experienced people in the heritage and museum world.
People who have been there before who have written some of these policies, dealt with some of these issues of inclusion and isolated, comforting narratives and how all of these elements can be re-purposed for 21st century audiences. And also if they need to be repurposed, because there are a lot of wheels that don't need to be re-made and there are a lot of items and parts of the collections which can function as controversial objects in their own right.
So, my role on the Expert Advisory Group (EAG) was as best as I could guide in that. My hesitancy came in the character of Livingstone himself and this is one of the more interesting journeys to make it entirely personal, this was one of the more interesting journeys for me working on the committee, coming from an African Caribbean background I have a predictably stereotypical view about David Livingstone and his role as a missionary and the function of missionary Christianity in southern and central Africa and very quickly I was beginning to understand that particularly around where you are situated, close to Glasgow in parts of Scotland and the demographic of non-white African origin, this demographic is to a marked degree composed of people from Southern and Central Africa, who have an entirely different approach and understanding of Livingstone. His life, his works and it’s another relationship to the man which I hadn’t fully taken into view, and it prompted all sorts of questions and reflections on how necessary it is for these heritage institutions to accurately reflect the local demographic. Or are there larger discussions to be had? And basically, given that whole local, Scottish, changing demographic aspect of the argument, how relevant was my input, and would it behove me just to sit back and listen to people who actually lived around Blantyre, Hamilton and those new communities around Glasgow – should those people be leading the discussion?
Long story short it was a guidance role in putting policies together and paving the way – but it was also a learning experience.
Alasdair: I suppose within a lot of these museums now, there is a lot of calls to update exhibitions and reframe narratives – why do you think it is important for museums like David Livingstone Birthplace to consider how their exhibitions are interpreted today and how they can appeal to new audiences, and keep up with conversations around decolonisation? Earlier this year there was talk from Kew Gardens who released their manifesto which contained a pledge to decolonise the gardens’ exploitative and racist legacies, and they received a lot of criticism. They were accused of being woke, unpatriotic - why do you think phrases like ‘woke culture’ they've become negative, there is negative conations attached to that as well?
S. I. Martin: Oh because there is more than ever now an active culture war. But going back to demographics, there is also a demographic war which to some degree the survival of many heritage intuitions - particularly those in larger cities - it dictates that they need to change their policies at every level from visitor services, the welcome to non-traditional viewers, the way that language is used and the way object are displayed, particularly objects from previously colonised parts of the world are explained (as often they are explained in the language of the coloniser, even in the 21st century) and this is an issue that crops up a lot in my work, particularly with the national archives who are holding very large collections, photographic and otherwise, of objects that they have no explanation of.
I can't refrain from sharing the story of one item from their photographic collection from the Caribbean, which was untitled, because it showed a middle-aged black Caribbean woman, carrying a metal basin on her head with a tap. Now, I could see immediately that she was selling mauby which is a uniquely and spectacularly bitter drink from the Caribbean, medicinal quite possibly, but horrible definitely, but she was selling this, she was a mauby seller, but there wasn't anyone that they were working with or in conversation with who could tell them that. There was no one in their circles who would be able to inform them that this woman was selling mauby and there is a whole culture around how it is distilled and how it is dispensed. So that is just one object out of millions which need to make sense, but saying all of that obviously to say that there is this need throughout the heritage sector to accommodate new audiences and to re-examine their collections. To wield the words that can be used as insults, like woke etc., they are just another way of being considerate and that is also part of the much larger culture battle, which unfortunately we don't have time to go into, which is the war around kindness, and we don't have time to go into that unfortunately (laughs)
Alasdair: Yes maybe that is a conversation for another day then (laughs)
S. I. Martin: Ye definitely, if not this century maybe (laughs)
Alasdair: Natalie, why do you think people are against decolonisation in museums? Like its definitely a buzzword across the sector isn’t it?
Natalie: I think it is, but when thinking specifically in what we have been trying to do in the museum is to have a fuller understanding of the past. For example, the reason why the names of Livingstone’s crew were left out, they weren’t recorded, and their histories were not recorded, does come back to 19th century attitudes around the crew members, Southern and Central Africans, and racism. It is important for us to acknowledge that these people had just as much to do with the geographical celebrations, and the celebrated aspects of Livingstone’s journeys, as Livingstone did.
I think that a lot of it is, surely from a storytelling perspective, completely illogical. We have 6 of 7 massive metal trunks in our collection, we know that we were really dependant on the trade of beads for example, so to turn round and say that he was a lone explorer was completely illogical and I think that we are in a really lucky position that our actual collection reflects that. It doesn't take a genius to work out that to carry x number of objects, not to mention the fact that Livingstone did record his crew members and their names and how much he paid them. These people have been omitted from the typical narrative around Livingstone, going back to that attitude around the crew members. Livingstone’s efforts were glorified, and the others were forgotten, so we have just tried to tell the truth of the matter.
The fact that we are not decolonising for the sake of it, we are just trying to tell the truth about the story that we are representing and to omit these people is grossly unjust for one thing and completely illogical – he is not a superman! Like how did he do it?
S. I. Martin: All the more so, just following on, and one of the great gifts and huge potential wellsprings of future, of longevity for the institution, is the collections that you do have. There are multiple stories, you have your manuscript collections for all sorts of imbedded stories, that are part of the greater story around David Livingstone and the part of the planet that he was moving around in.
Natalie: That is the thing that I find so exciting, we’re kind of only at the very forefront of being able to find out about these stories. Livingstone online for example, opens up all these Livingstone archives from across the world, that are being digitised and a lot of them are being transcribed, and this is something that I know that Kate Simpson, has been working on so in terms of getting the metadata on these to work, so that you can search and find people’s names, for example Livingstone’s cook Halima. That is just the tip of the iceberg, in terms of the ability to research and find out more about these people. It makes the story and the history a lot more interesting to reflect everybody who was actually involved in it, instead of the lone man on top of a statue.
S. I. Martin: In a sense, when you explain in your last sentence, the lone man (laughs) it does speak to particular national narratives of ‘Britishness’, of the lone imperialist, the solitary autonomous bullock against uncivilised hoards, which speaks to a lot of sentimental notions of ‘Britishness’ and removing it, that will be experienced as a direct insult as harming people whose identities are invested in that. They’ve really internalised all of these messages - not to say that these pills should be sugared, or that medicine should be sugared - but I think it is important just to know, exactly – to answer your question in another way Alasdair - what you will and are dealing with in reworking these narratives.
Alasdair: Definitely, that is one of the criticisms that seems to come up quite a lot is that decolonisation is somehow ‘unpatriotic’…
Natalie: In our collection, a lot of our collection is from Southern and Central Africa and going back to your point before about the representation and discussion of these objects from the perspective of the coloniser, it is just kind of baffling isn’t it that people can feel offended, by trying to tell as much as you can about the actual use and function of these objects, that are from Southern and Central Africa. Even looking at the limitations of your ability to research these objects, often information is written by European anthropologists, and it is going back to the source communities if you can find them where the true information is going to come, as you were saying before about the women selling mauby...That is the true crux of what those objects were used for and why they were important
S. I. Martin: The power is in the hands of who is describing it, the world is description
Alasdair: I think a lot of this work around decolonisation comes from finding these stories which are already there but they have just not been widely acknowledged. I know Steve within some of your own work, you set up the 500 years of Black London walking tours and I wonder if you could talk about your motivations behind setting those up and why these narratives, overlooked historical narratives, are so relevant today?
S. I. Martin: Amongst the things I do are occasional walking tours around parts of London, as in pretty much all within zone 4, you are tripping over black history, there are so many points of reference, and I was moved to do it because of the absence of these histories. Their absence in popular narratives but also their ubiquity, there is pretty much nowhere you can go within zone 4 in greater London, where you won't find these histories, where people are buried, baptised, wed. Black people of all ranks over 500 solid years of history and nobody spoke about it.
It's also what motivates me to do fiction as well, just to find a way to get people discussing and talking about these narratives, these are individuals as well who are embedded in the landscape and that extends to working with English heritage on their blue plaques committees and a lot of the work I do is in some ways about being an overt pest and getting audiences and assemblies to actually see that this stuff is around us but it's not alien, more to the point, that it is woven into the fabric, particularly of London’s history.
I live in London, and it's woven into this place’s fabric of the meaning, and often a lot of political directions London and Londoners have taken, are locked into the black presence, so it's a way of flagging up multiple histories and how important they are.
Alasdair: In a similar sense we have been trying to flag up stories, within the new exhibition here at DLB, that previously haven’t been shared. I am wondering is there any areas within the new exhibition that you think require more work as we are moving forward?
Natalie: I think if we were to turn around and say that the museum is completely finished, we would be wrong and I hope that part of Steve’s role would be to tell us that we are wrong in thinking that this kind of full stop, “we are finished”. It's the sort of thing, as the refurbishment is done, and now we can get to the bones of really starting to research the collection and the more information we find out, the more we can potentially change the interpretation and the way that we speak about these objects, and we can change the way that we represent the museum online the collections online.
I think that if we were to say that's our museum finished for next 30 years as has happened in the past that's where it gets to point where Livingstone becomes completely irrelevant again, whereas if we do keep on working towards researching collaboration with the source communities of really fascinating objects, that is going to be where we will maintain our relevance. And also, that we are not falling back into bad habits as an organisation and being really reductive about the story, as it would just become irrelevant in terms of the museum and in terms of Livingstone himself.
The point we want to get to, is seeing Livingstone as a really good way to explore other elements of Southern and Central African history in particular. Look at these and have it as a kind of spring board to all these other narratives, that is maybe an ongoing story, more and more as it is digitised and accessible, that we can now do with the information we have been lacking for so long, there is still more to do. I think that when complacency and laziness come into your museum practice, that is where the danger lies
Alasdair: Steve do you have any thoughts on how museums like the DLB can continue to be relevant?
S. I. Martin: Yes, in a sense following on from what Natalie was saying, is that one of the things I’ve always been keen on is the opening up of the manuscript collection and archives of all sorts. Inviting people in and as you mentioned before, Kate Simpson, great work on burrowing through all sorts of manuscripts and collections to allow people to just burrow their way through it and make their own journeys in a more personal sense through this material.
But particularly where the Birthplace is, it is going to rely to a significant degree on the direction content, on the community relationships and those with community stakeholders as well, which is always a tricky one. It’s about nurturing and maintaining community stakeholders and community relationships as often they are of a very transient nature, but again having those experiences and that body of experience, those knowledge sets as part of how the institution works is a great thing and schools and learning.
I am obliged to mention your proximity to Glasgow and all of the ongoing work that's really taken place there around enslavement and that particular cities fortunes and projects like the runaway’s project. The young runaways which is based in Glasgow, its not a perfect fit but there is some dialogue that could be established between Livingstone and anti slavery and slavery as experienced not as something remote faraway out of sight out of mind, but as something on the streets of Hamilton, on the streets of Glasgow and I’m not sure Blantyre exactly but I would be surprised there were not enslaved or runaway young black people not far from where you are sitting.
Alasdair: Yes definitely, I think opening up our collection and manuscripts is definitely like a big focus for us moving forward. To different communities and different researchers, I know that within your own practice Steve, when you are writing fiction you tend to use a lot of archival research and a lot of facts within fictional narratives, so that is a writing practice as well as a research practice that comes from the archive, could you perhaps discuss some of your methodology there?
S. I. Martin: Indirectly, at one stage in my life my main focus was to be a creative writer and like most people who are interested in history and historical fiction, I was spending far too much time in archives poring through documents going down the most insane, as you can imagine, rabbit holes. And I actually thought, I am actually quite enjoying this, perhaps more than the process of writing! So much so that I would say that some parts, lots of what I was writing by the way of fiction, wrote itself as it was embedded in the built environment, in the newspapers people read in actual incidents, so it made the writing easier, but it also inspired in me this huge passion for archives and archival research and the absence of markers and descriptors for the black Asian experience, within archives. Little by little this is being rectified particularly at the level of local archives, because in London and one or two other cities over the last 30 or so years its becoming the case that to a significant degree the collections which are entering these institutions are about community, non-white communities, non-white communities who are traditionally have the lowest profile in terms of being users of archives so yeah it’s incumbent on them to really change their practice and have people who can talk about collections which are about them.
Alasdair: Yeah definitely, I suppose, just to go back to the DLB development what would you say you are proudest of within the re-development project at this stage Natalie?
Natalie: Oh I don't know! I suppose the main thing I feel really proud of is, I feel proud that the museum is turning into a place that is very self aware in what we are doing and is endeavouring to serve the communities who we serve. I can’t properly put my finger on a very specific aspect of the museum because I do think that it is an ongoing thing and is in some cases a continuous improvement. I think that the ethos behind the organisation is something that is changing, and I think that it is turning into an organisation that I would feel very proud of, because I do think that we are striving to do things very differently from a lot of heritage organisations. We are recognising the sins of the past if you like and we are being given quite a lot of scope to help fix it and I think that having groups like the EAG does hold us to account and that can help us on that journey, and is essential in keeping us in check and making sure that we are striving forward to be what we want to be, in terms of the ambitions of the organisation, in terms of how we run, and the use and significance of the collection moving forward.
But in terms of a specific area, there are elements, I do feel really proud, the area we have got in our display of contemporary African community objects, proud of the research that was done and that was done through a massive group effort through a lot of volunteers and a lot of students, who very diligently did research on these objects and they produced the most amazing research and it was very sad to be only able to use ten words of that research - or sorry thirty words as we ended up going for with labels - as the objects were so fascinating, but going forward these are resources that we do wish to publish online and that we will be developing going forward. And being able to add to that research by going to source communities and getting more community based research on the objects, and that as a purely experimental form of – you know we have got all these objects and we know nothing about them can you help - and it worked out. That was the generosity of the experts that we contacted and the students and the volunteers who were really tenacious at being like, “I see your previous explanation of the arrow” (I’m using quotation marks there) “and I will produce a document that show where these came from based around the design” - and it really did prove to me that, we have already proven to ourselves, that we can do better and that is a good exemplar (I think) of the ability of us to drastically improve the ways that we do things, through concentrated research on the collection.
Alasdair: Steve is there anything you would add as particular highlights for yourself in the redevelopment so far?
S. I. Martin: Again to repeat myself its just the focus and the potential raising of the profile of the collections and the way that the communities will be invited to play a role in possible futures directions of the institution.
Alasdair: I think that probably just about wraps things up, so thanks very much Steve.
S. I. Martin: It was my pleasure, nice speaking with you Alasdair and Natalie and I look forward to seeing you both in person soon
Natalie: Thank you very much!