With the imminent re-opening of the renovated Shuttle Row museum in Blantyre, we’re celebrating by showcasing in detail, the story of how the slum was changed into a museum the first time around during the late 1920’s. Transcribed from the 1940’s, this chapter explores how the ideas were built upon.
“By the Spring of 1927, our committee had in hand funds sufficient to justify our tackling the main scheme. Our purpose was now clear. It was to make Livingstone’s birth room a place of pilgrimage, a shrine in which the great tradition should remain firmly founded, where the generous heart of Scots Youth would fire to the thrill of his story and respond to the inspiration of his noble example. But how was this high task to be accomplished? That now became out main problem, to which we gave much “team thinking”, as our plans and aspirations grew more and more ambitious.
The main cause of this expansion was , as already been indicated, something in inherent in the great man himself. Everything about him, except his body was big; everything he touched blossomed into romance, and in the course of our efforts it sometimes seemed, at least to me, as if Livingstone were personally guiding our plans.
However, let me say again, that it is to our architect Sir (then Mr.) Frank Mears that we mainly owe the unique form which the Memorial gradually assumed. And it is strange that his appointment to the work was due to one of those apparently casual happenings that had so large a place in the shaping of our effort.
One afternoon Dr. Donald Fraser stood looking at the picturesque old building and the lovely river bank beyond and , seeing his fervid Celtic imagination the possibilities in the scheme, said to Mr. J.G.Harley, that as far as he knew there was only one Scotsman who could do justice to the fine opportunity the situation afforded and that was Professor Patrick Geddes, who was then living in France.
Mr Harley answered that the professor had a son-in-law, Mr. F.C Mears an architect in Edinburgh, who was a man filled with the same idealism and that he had great experience in the restoration of old buildings. The name, which at the time was hardly known to the rest of our Committee, seemed a happy suggestion, and Mr. Mears was invited to visit Blantyre to give his opinion.
He saw at once the poverty of the plans we had in mind, and also many possibilities hidden to us. He decided finally against the use of the ‘Lodge’ as a museum and suggested we should confine the whole project to the Shuttle Row buildings. His suggestion was that the passages should be opened up, so that visitors could pass right through the houses, and that each room should be given a distinctive place in the telling of the story. This method now appears so obviously right, that familiarity with it has dimmed the brilliant originality of the idea when first suggested.
Mr. Mears insisted that the simplicity of the place should be preserved, and that we have tried to retain. It is this simple beauty coupled with the general homeliness of the surroundings, that now create the atmosphere that the sympathetic pilgrim cannot fail to sense.
Mr. Mears’ trained eye saw, further, the possibilities of the grounds – the wide expanse for playing fields; the untidy patch by the river that might become, as it has since become, a flower garden; the old vegetable ground enclosure, which with only a little excavation might be transformed into a perfect open air auditorium where meetings and pageants might be held. This too has been done.
Livingstone is a hero to every Scots child and the Memorial has a primary appeal to children and youths. It was designed to tell the story by every means available to us. In its completed form, it may be said to have become a profusely illustrated biography, in which the story is told in short simply-phrased wall placards, and the life illustrated by mural paintings, tableaux, maps, photographs, and working models, while the personal aspect of the history is made to live by the help of a remarkably complete collection of relics. So it results that a journey round becomes for the young visitor, a veritable voyage of discovery that cannot but make a lasting impression upon any respective mind.”
Women and children residents stand in the doorway of Shuttle Row around 1900. It’s not a far leap to imagine what conditions inside were like.