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Days of Empire

A museum in Bristol has dedicated itself to providing a more balanced account of Britain's imperial past. Yolanda Brooks reports

The British Empire and Commonwealth Museum

pound;4.95 adults; pound;2.95 children (5-15); pound;4.35 students. Discounts are available for groups of 10 or more.

Tel: 0117 925 4980

It was once a proud boast that "the sun never sets on the British Empire", yet despite its historical significance, it's often regarded as Britain's dirty secret. It is perhaps surprising then, that an independent museum has dedicated itself to this era.

The British Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol opened a permanent exhibition last autumn with the intention of providing an even-handed account of the period which saw Britain rule over a quarter of the world's population.

"I think we were brave to take the subject on," says Dr Katherine Mann, the museum's head of education and interpretation. "It is 500 years that have shaped all of our history and we can't deny it, we can't sweep it under the carpet, but nowhere in Britain is it tackled. I don't think we should be celebrating it, but the fact is we should be acknowledging it."

The 16 exhibition halls are broken down into three main areas: Britain builds an empire (1480-1800), The rise of Victoria's empire (1800-1900) and End of Empire (1900 to present day). It all starts in 1497 with the voyage of Giovanni Caboto (aka John Cabot) from Bristol to Newfoundland and covers both the unsavoury and more celebratory aspects of the empire. From slavery and the disenfranchisement of indigenous populations, the destruction of Benin and the Raj, to trade, tourism, communications and the formation of the Commonwealth and multicultural Britain.

There are some wonderfully evocative pictures, costumes, documents and models on display and plenty of oral histories, but there are few hands-on exhibits in the exhibition area itself. There are handling collections for use in the classrooms, but the main exhibition could offer more interactive opportunities.

However, the interactive elements that are available work well. The spice cabinet with a selection of spices for visitors to smell is an excellent idea and there are some good interactive computer terminals. Another plus are the guides - ready to answer questions and provide in-depth information on the exhibits.

Set in Isambard Kingdom Brunel's first railway station, the museum doesn't have the grandeur that you might expect of an exhibition covering such a vast subject. In fact it has a cosy atmosphere and its main exhibition areas can easily be navigated within 90 minutes.

Schools can also take part in a range of workshops run by the permanent education team or an outside specialist, and a teachers' pack with pre and post-visit activity ideas is sent to schools planning a visit. There's also a library in Brunel's old drawing room.

Dr Mann says: "We cover an enormous range of subjects and we have special workshops that you can book, covering everything from Tudor explorers through to slavery, and the Victorians. We also have workshops in our radio room where up to 15 pupils can create their own radio programmes."

The British Empire and Commonwealth Museum certainly creates debate. It inspires you to find out more and provides the facts together with personal histories to give a rounder perspective of what the British Empire was and what it meant.

* During my visit, the exhibition, India: Pioneering Photographers 1850-1900 was running and visiting schools were taking part in a Patterns of India workshop run by artist Stuart Shotton.


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