British Empire & Commonwealth Collection: Introducing the new online catalogue

Posted on by Charlotte Bartholomew.

Written by Frances Davies, Documentation Assistant.

Making sure that our collections are accessible and can be viewed by people not just in Bristol but globally is a key focus for us right now. With most of our objects and archives in storage and far less people visiting the museum due to Covid-19 restrictions, 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, which contains an amazing range of objects, photos, films, papers and sound recordings dating from the 1860s to recent times. Although material was collected or created largely by white British people, living and working in various countries in the former empire, it has huge untapped potential to help  people tell their stories from multiple viewpoints and to interrogate the workings of the British Empire. However, if visitors don’t know what we have, then how can they use it – therefore we are 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. The result is that searching for objects, photos, films, oral histories and paper records will be a whole lot easier.

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 instead 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 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.

Searching for these objects and archives is now far more intuitive and user friendly than in the past. 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 & 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.

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.

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

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

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 made up of archivists, librarians, academics and volunteers and their feedback has been invaluable in helping us improve any glitches or difficulties with using the new site. One issue of concern was whether some visitors more used to checking out museum collections online (and thus searching simply for objects) might find the addition of archives, and the various hierarchies and levels associated with them, daunting. In order to make things crystal clear 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 to the website and welcome any feedback from visitors 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.

Link to catalogue:

Email: [email protected]

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