Colonial Film: Moving Images of the British Empire

The Colonial Film project produced a major website housing an online catalogue of all films showing life in the British colonies from 1895 to the separate moments of independence held by three major film archives. The project has conserved and made newly accessible a significant period of our global cultural heritage as a major national and international resource.

Award Information

AHRC ref: AH/E009670/1
Discipline: Cultural and Museum Studies
Funding opportunity: Research Grant
Areas of Impact: Culture and Heritage
Lead RO: Birkbeck College
Region: London

The Colonial Film project made visible and accessible crucial aspects of the history of British colonialism. It collected films that had previously been difficult to find and provided careful analysis of aspects of colonial history that are frequently ignored in current discussions of Britain's colonial heritage and our shared global history. In conserving this significant national and international resource, the project has made visual records of colonialism available, not only to residents of Britain, but also across many of the nations colonised by the British Empire. The website has received over 300 emails from users in the UK, Ghana, Malaysia, India, Singapore and Nigeria, many of which to express appreciation or ask questions, but others show how deeply the resource has touched their lives and reconnected them with their own family and national histories.

In January 2009 the BFI posted a film from the collection, called ‘Springtime in an English Village (1944)’, on their YouTube channel, where it has since received over 57,000 views. The film showed a young African girl being crowned May Queen in an English village and was seen by the May Queen’s daughter, now living in Maryland, USA, who identified her mother in the film. This led to the mother contacting people from the village where she had spent time in as a young girl and enabled her to reconnect with a significant part of her past.

The website continues to generate substantial public interest with around 10,000. The website’s launch was accompanied by significant public engagement activities, such as a commercial film season, attended by a paying audience of over 1,000 people, followed by a free exhibition at the National Film Theatre (NFT) that ran for two months.

The impact on the cultural institutions involved (IWM, NFT, BECM, BFI) has also been notable. It not only preserved fragile celluloid film from deterioration or loss through digitization but also brought new traffic to their websites and fresh interest in their collections from both researchers and the public. As a senior archivist at the Imperial War Museum, wrote, “From the moment of its launch the new site attracted a more numerous and diverse range of researchers than the IWM's own film catalogue was then capable of attracting,” and called it the most important means of popularising the museum's collections internationally, since the Thames Television World at War documentary series in 1974. The project has also proved to be a model of how institutions holding archives can work with academics in the future. The academic context and catalogue information provided for a selection of the films have shown the BFI and IWM the potential for making fuller use of their holdings and enhance popular understanding of other parts of their collections.  

For more information on the project visit: Colonial Film: Moving images of the British Empire.

Gateway to Research Project Links: Colonial Film: Moving Images of the British Empire, Oct 2007 – Sep 2010.