In 2012, the collections of the former British Empire and Commonwealth Museum (BECM) were transferred to the care of Bristol Museums, Galleries and Archives. This major collection covers a wide range of material relating to the countries of the British Empire and the Commonwealth.


Material given to the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum reflects the work of people in the Empire and early Commonwealth, working for the colonial service or for private companies. Included in this group is material BECM purchased to support exhibitions.


The collection also includes the Commonwealth Institute collection, containing material from the Imperial Institute and the later Commonwealth Institute. These both reflect the culture and economic resources of the countries represented. The objects range from a bicycle rickshaw to wood samples, and include paintings by Commonwealth artists.The Commonwealth Institute handling collection consists of several thousand objects, gathered for use in teaching.


The paper, photographic, film and sound archives from BECM were transferred to Bristol Archives. The paper archive includes archive material from the BECM collections and personal papers from individuals working in a wide range of jobs in the countries of the Empire.


The photographic collection of about 500,000 still images covers a wide time range and a broad subject range, from the documentation of major infrastructure projects to family birthday parties. The film collection holds about 2,000 films, many of them amateur films of family events, but they show the work and family life of the Colonial Service staff, and the people with whom they worked.


There is also an oral history archive, developed by BECM, covering a vast range of anecdotes and opinions from many people who lived and worked in the former Empire and Commonwealth, from nurses to geologists. The transfer also included the library established by the Imperial Institute and developed by BECM.


The transfer to Bristol Museums, Galleries and Archives was a great opportunity to integrate the best of this material into our collections and displays, to use it for community-led projects and to build a research resource. The collection is still being documented - writing descriptions, recording associated information, photographing everything and conserving objects where needed.


In June 2015 Bristol Archives launched the ‘Exploring Empire’ project, funded by the National Archives Cataloguing Grants Programme, in recognition of the importance of the BECM photographic collections for understanding life in the colonial era. The aim of the project is that by August 2017 the most significant of these collections will have been catalogued and made available for research. At the same time, the film collections are being reassessed, and revised catalogues will be published as they become available. Digitised copies of some of these films are accessible for viewing in the Bristol Archives searchroom.


To access the catalogues for the photographic and film collections, please select the Related Narratives below.


image: The State Entry into Delhi, by Roderick McKenzie, oil on canvas, 1903 [2002/156/001]