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Take a reign check

Britain's first empire and commonwealth museum allows children a hands-on experience of the empire, says Andrew Mourant

"People say we live in a small world. What does that mean?" No one among the 23 Year 6 pupils at Hannah More Primary looks certain enough to venture an answer. But Kyla Tichkowsky, an education administrator at the British Empire Commonwealth Museum, soon gets them thinking.

Her starting point is where the museum's story begins, with John Cabot's expedition from Bristol to Newfoundland in 1497. "How long do you think it took him?" she asks. "Eight days," comes the guess. "Six weeks," she replies. "Then he had to sail back and tell them - there was no telephone."

Fast forward to the 21st century. Some of her audience find it equally improbable that it takes Kyla only eight hours to reach England by plane from her home in western Canada, a vivid example of the shrunken world.

Her backdrop is a map of Britain in its colonial pomp, a quarter of the world's land mass depicted in red. Exhibits in 20 galleries chronicle the imperial rise and fall, warts and all. The museum is in Bristol, a city going through atonement for its role in the slave trade. Children peer at a driver's whip and are told of slaves being cuffed hand and foot.

The museum, 16 years in the planning, opened in 2002. It is the first dedicated to portraying a history of Britain's empire, the most expansive ever, yet something about which many are ignorant. Perspectives come from explorers to aboriginals, viceroys to freedom fighters, colonial district officers to indentured servants.

It covers maritime, military and technological triumphs but also examines racism, economic exploitation, cultural imperialism and slavery. These have a resonance for pupils from Hannah More, an inner-city primary with many children from ethnic minorities - three of the group are Jamaican-born.

They divide into four groups researching topics such as human rights in Africa and the Caribbean, immigration and racism in Britain, fair trade in Ghana, and the environment.

The British Empire Commonwealth experience is, in part, hands on. There are all sorts of touchable artefacts and exhibits, from a bunch of plastic bananas to luxury furs. The children are given worksheets with questions.

They must produce a report then give a presentation in the museum's radio studio, home to Commonwealth FM. One group considers ecology, for instance the imbalance caused by shooting lions but allowing gazelles to proliferate. Another group deals with immigration in Britain. They watch a video in which people reminisce, from an era where householders letting rooms were free to put up notices declaring "No Coloureds". The students of fair trade in Ghana consider the price of a bar of chocolate and find that precious little goes to the grower of cocoa beans.

After research, the groups assemble in the studio. At the controls is Lucy Bradley, the education manager, who oversees Commonwealth FM. This broadcasts locally for a month each year, drawing in diverse contributors with something to say about the empire.

First she imparts studio discipline: "No fiddling, no tapping; the microphone picks up every noise." Many seem too overawed to fidget, yet there's comfort for the tongue-tied in knowing their fluffs can be ironed out before a CD of their report is presented to the school.

Back in class there are more questions and answers as the groups trade knowledge. But nothing beats seeing the implements of empire first-hand and speculating what a machete used for felling sugar cane might become "in the hands of a rebellious slave".


British Empire and Commonwealth Museum. Clock Tower Yard, Temple Meads, Bristol, BS1 6QH. Tel: Lucy Bradley 0117 925 4980 ext 218. Email:

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