Empire Explored!

Posted on by Fay Curtis.

by Nicky Sugar, Archivist

In August 2015, Nicky Sugar from Bristol Archives shared her first impressions of the British Empire and Commonwealth Collections. Two years – and tens of thousands of photographs – later, she returns to share how the Exploring Empire project went.

When my colleague Jayne Pucknell and I arrived at Bristol Archives, our task was to catalogue the most significant photographic collections inherited from the former British Empire and Commonwealth Museum. This project was funded by the National Archives Cataloguing Grants Programme.

Black and white image showing Dr Julius Nyerere, first President of an independent Tanzania, greeting a train driver.

Dr Julius Nyerere, first President of an independent Tanzania, greets a train driver (East African Railways and Harbours Collection, 2002/133/1/40)

By the end of summer 2015 we had moved the photos (around half a million of them!) from the
museum stores to Bristol Archives. We then carried out a full audit, lifting the lid on every box to gain a better understanding of what we were working with.

There was no way we could catalogue all the photos in two years, and choosing which collections were the highest priority was very hard. We came up with a list of 10 “definites”: the largest collections which we knew were already in demand by researchers. This was backed up by a shortlist of other important collections which show the range of countries and themes represented.

The 40 collections we eventually catalogued are now available for research in Bristol Archives’ public searchroom and the catalogues can be searched via our website. Some are already well-known, such as the photographs of the writer Elspeth Huxley  and those from the Crown Agents railway archive.


Some of the real treasures, however, tell stories from the perspective of colonial families living overseas who documented their homes and lives on film. Years later, these amateur collections from all parts of the former Empire have become a goldmine for research.

Our work to get the catalogues online has just been the tip of the iceberg. We have made contact with some families of people who donated photographs and we have also received donations of new material and given talks to students, academic researchers and film festival audiences. We have got to know representatives of communities in Bristol who have roots in countries represented in the collections.

We’ve received enquiries about reproducing the photographs in documentaries and books, and around 2,000 of the images are now available for licencing from Bridgeman Images. In October this year, photographs and film from the collection will feature in 
Empire Through the Lens
, an exhibition at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery.

Delegates at a workshop organised by the University of Bristol learn more about the British Empire & Commonwealth Collections, July 2017.

Delegates at a workshop organised by the University of  Bristol learn more about the British Empire & Commonwealth Collections, July 2017.

So what happens next?

We are delighted that work on the British Empire and Commonwealth Collections isn’t ending after this project. Jayne and I have become the permanent members of the BECC team and we are about to embark on an audit of the 1,000 boxes of paper documents in the collection. We have been invited to a conference in Malta in October to share our experiences with Commonwealth colleagues, and we’ve just started a newsletter to keep people informed of what we are up to. Sign up and keep in touch!



  • Cover photo – The new Woolworths store in Bridgetown, Barbados, 1956 (2003/066/1/3)

2 comments on “Empire Explored!

  1. Dr Ben Burt

    Nicky – I wonder if your archive includes any photos from Solomon Islands? I work for th British Museum, where I have been researching, collecting and publishing Solomons archive photos for many years. From your website, it seems that you have not yet catalogued any photos from the Solomons yet, but if you have any that I could see I would be very pleased to help you document them. – Ben


    1. Lacey Trotman

      Hi Ben, great to hear from you – I have passed on your enquiry to Nicky and she should get back to you shortly. Many thanks, Lacey.


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