British Empire & Commonwealth Collection: Introducing the new online catalogue

Posted on by Charlotte Bartholomew.

by Frances Davies, Documentation Assistant

Making our collections accessible and available globally is a key focus for us right now. With most of our objects and archives in storage and far fewer people visiting the museum due to lockdown, using the internet as a way for visitors to find out what we have is a must.

One such collection is the British Empire & Commonwealth Collection (BECC), based at Bristol Archives. This collection contains an amazing range of objects, photos, films, papers and sound recordings dating from the 1860s to recent times. Although material was largely collected or created by white British people living and working in various countries in the former empire, it has huge potential to help people tell their stories from multiple viewpoints and to interrogate the British Empire.

Therefore, we are very pleased to announce the launch of a new online catalogue for the BECC! The team have spent the last few months working with the company Metadatis (using their software Epexio) to get the website ready for launch. Searching for objects, photos, films, oral histories and paper records is now a whole lot easier.

Necklace made from bear claws, coloured beads (green, white, orange and blue) and teeth. Canada.

Necklace made from bear claws, coloured beads (green, white, orange and blue) and teeth. Canada.

My usual duties as a Documentation Assistant involve working with the 10,000+ objects in the museum stores. Unfortunately the pandemic put a stop to that so my energy has been focused on getting as much of the collection ready to go online as possible. A task which, thankfully, I have been able to achieve whilst working from home. Remote working has had its setbacks but I’ve had access to EMu, our collections management system, so I can check and improve the data for many of the object catalogue records. Now almost 500 of these are live on the new website. More will gradually be added over the coming months.

The objects collection is wide-ranging and contains biology and geology specimens, costume and textiles, domestic objects and items that highlight the culture, industry and resources of former empire and commonwealth countries. There is also a wonderful art collection of 2D and 3D works by commonwealth artists – many of whom have been forgotten or excluded from the mainstream art world. Along with the objects, nearly 15,000 items from the archive collection feature on the new catalogue including 8,000 photos and 200 films never before available online.

Woman's wig made from plant fibre, with long plaited braids. Botswana.

Woman’s wig made from plant fibre, with long plaited braids. Botswana.

Searching for these objects and archives is now far more intuitive and user friendly. Not only can you find things via keywords and object numbers but by region (e.g. South Asia, East Africa), grouped in a category (e.g. art, environment and wildlife) and also by format (e.g. objects, film, photo). It is also easier to make the connections between objects and archives from the same donor and see a group of items from the same donor more holistically.

Before rolling out the new online catalogue we enlisted the help of a number of testers to ensure the site was easy to use and didn’t leave anyone feeling flummoxed. Our testers were archivists, librarians, academics and volunteers and their feedback has been invaluable in helping us improve the new site.

To make things as clear as possible, a ‘help’ guide has been added to the site which explains how to use the catalogue. We will continue to add more content and objects and welcome any feedback about the look and feel. Do let us know your thoughts as there is always room for improvement!

We also encourage contributions to the descriptions of the objects and archives – particularly if you can provide more information about context, makers, terminology, place names and any finer detail.

You can get in touch with us any time. 

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