British Empire & Commonwealth Collection

This unique collection documents the links between Britain and countries in the British Empire from the late 19th century to recent times.

The household belongings, souvenirs, photographs and papers of British people who lived and worked in the colonies give an insight into the workings of empire and the lives of the people who made it function.

We make these sources available to help people and communities worldwide to explore difficult, forgotten or hidden histories from their own perspectives.

The majority of the collection was previously held by the former British Empire & Commonwealth Museum in Bristol.

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Research access

The collection is available for research at Bristol Archives. If you cannot visit us in person, we will try to assist you via email.

Paper, film, photographic and sound collections
To consult this material, find out about visiting our searchroom. We recommend that you contact us before you visit. Email [email protected]

Object collections
Please contact us to arrange to view material. Email [email protected]

The collection

Through objects, photographs, films, personal papers and sound recordings, the collection provides insights into diverse lives and landscapes during a challenging and controversial period of history. We are working to catalogue the collections and to digitise some of the material.

Please search our online catalogue to explore what’s available.

Object collections
DollsThe British Empire & Commonwealth Museum collection was created from items that capture the working and domestic lives of British colonial workers, and of the people with whom and amongst whom they lived and worked.

The Commonwealth Institute collection, started in the 1880s, reflects changing attitudes from Empire as a resource to be exploited for trade and industry, to independent nations creating their own cultures and industries.

Film collections
Vintage carThere are around 2,000 items in our film collections dating from 1920 to the 1970s. Representing many countries from the former empire, we have rich amateur footage, in particular from India and countries in Africa.

Our earliest footage is a short clip of the Nebi Musa riots in Jerusalem. Many aspects of life away from Britain are shown, including local scenes, major events, wildlife and the environment.

Photograph collections
person standingWe hold around 500,000 photographs dating from the 1860s to the 1970s and coming from all corners of the Commonwealth.

Key collections include the African photographs of the writer Elspeth Huxley, the Crown Agents Railway archive and Charles Trotter’s collection of negatives from 1950s Nairobi.

Many of the less well-known collections from amateur photographers are equally significant in depicting untold stories of life in the empire.


Our latest projects

Building shared futures
This project delivered in partnership with the University of Bristol and several institutions in Nairobi, considers how digital technology can help us share historical images between the UK and Kenya.

Digitising the British Empire & Commonwealth Collection films
To help preserve the 2,000 original films in our collection and to enable access, working with Nulight Studios, we are digitising several hundred through our film digitisation project.

One vast interconnected world: The Paul Mellon digitisation grant
Following a generous grant from the Paul Mellon Centre for British Art, this project has opened up access to some of our oldest photographs, taken in South Asia, East and West Africa, Australia, China and the Caribbean.

Read more about our current work.

Online exhibitions

Empire Through The LensA WWII recruitment poster featuring a lion and the slogan 'The Empire Needs Men'
From 500,000 photographs and 2,000 films, we asked 27 people to each choose just one. Their choices are shown in this exhibition and the reasons for that choice are explained in their own words.

Commonwealth soldiers
This exhibition highlights some key images from the collection showing the involvement of both men and women from various Commonwealth countries in WW1 and WW2.

Changing perspectives
In 2019, we commissioned Kenyan photographer, Chao Tayiana, to re-visit various sites in Nairobi and record her response to a selection of 1950s images taken from our Trotter collection.

Publishing material

You can buy some of the most popular photos from these collections online, as either prints or digital files from Bridgeman Images.

You can also browse and purchase clips from some of our film footage from Getty Images.

If you would like to publish other material (including sharing on social media), please contact us.

Our advisory group

The following people advise us on managing the BEC Collection, identifying themes for research and reaching new audiences:

  • Prof Simon Potter, University of Bristol
  • Prof Robert Bickers, University of Bristol
  • Prof Elizabeth Edwards, FBA, De Montfort University
  • Dr John McAleer, University of Southampton
  • Dr Kent Fedorowich, University of the West of England
  • Dr Jacqueline Maingard, University of Bristol
  • Dr Chris Morton, Pitt Rivers Museum / University of Oxford
  • Prof Olivette Otele, University of Bristol
  • Dr Tim Powell, The National Archives
  • Dr Shawn Sobers, University of the West of England
  • Dr Johanna Zetterstrom-Sharp, Horniman Museum & Gardens / Goldsmiths University of London

Donating material

If you have material that you would like to donate to the collection, please email [email protected]