British Empire and Commonwealth Museum archival collections

SCOLMA (the UK Libraries and Archives Group on Africa)

Archives of the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum – current position
Report on a visit to Bristol Record Office

Lucy McCann (Secretary, SCOLMA)
John Pinfold (SCOLMA committee member)
Marion Wallace (Chair, SCOLMA)

Three members of SCOLMA visited Bristol Record Office on 12 November to discuss the archives of the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum (BECM), recently acquired by the Bristol museums and archives services. This follows the closure of the BECM about three years ago.

The physical transfer of the museum and archives collections to Bristol Museums, Galleries and Archives is now complete. This has taken several months, and the team has had to undertake urgent conservation and stabilising work, which is continuing. Both collections are now stored close to Bristol Record Office.

Artefacts loaned to the BECM have, in general, been offered back to the depositors; in some cases they have been taken back by their owners and in others converted to donations (Bristol Museums, Galleries and Archives does not usually accept object loans ). We believe that loaned archival material has also been offered back to depositors, but Bristol staff are as yet unsure whether all the loaned items have been identified. Artefacts and archives given to the BECM have now been legally transferred to the ownership of Bristol Museums, Galleries and Archives.

The following major collections have not been transferred to the Bristol services:
• Records of the Palestinian Police Authority – transferred to the UK National Archives
• Directorate of Overseas Surveys aerial photographs – transferred to the National Collection of Aerial Photography, Edinburgh
• Rhodesian Army Archive – current place of deposit not known to us
• Foreign and Commonwealth Office Library – the FCO has taken back some or all of the material.

The museum collections have been inventoried, but there is as yet no complete list of the archives (which cover 10,000 ft2) because the records transferred from the BECM are incomplete and inconsistent. In the coming months Bristol Record Office staff will tackle the production of an outline list, and this will be followed by full cataloguing. Given the current lack of catalogue data, it is not yet possible to make these collections available to researchers. However, the Record Office hopes to begin to be able to answer special requests at some point in 2013.
o NB for an incomplete (2006) listing, see

The transfer to the Bristol services includes the photograph and moving image collections of the BECM. A staff member is currently employed to make this material available online and to continue digitisation. It is hoped that Images of Empire, the online photographs site, will soon be live again. About 40% of the moving image material has already been digitised and it is also hoped to make this available online, together with the Museum’s own moving image collections, fairly soon (NB about 1% of this collection is already available through

A number of policy issues remain to be considered once Bristol Museums, Galleries and Archives have a clearer idea of the content, extent and condition of the archival collections. For example, it is not yet decided in what way the book collections, particularly the Library of the Commonwealth Institute, will be stored and made available to the public. Bristol Museums, Galleries and Archives made clear the fact that they are keen to work with other stakeholders, and eventually both to build on and expand the collection, and to have it used as widely as possible. They recognise its importance as a resource for the history of the British Empire and Commonwealth, its potential for creating a research hub and its significance for the history of Bristol.

We are of the view that it is fortunate that Bristol Record Office has taken over the BECM archives, and that they are now in good hands and being professionally cared for. While there will inevitably be some further delay, owing to the size of the collections and the level of cataloguing required, the collection will be made available to researchers in a proper manner in due course.

Enquiries about the archival collections (including sound, moving image and photographs) should be directed to Richard Burley (

Enquiries about the museum collections should be directed to Sue Giles (

SCOLMA 14.12.12

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