About the Archives

The AHRC Colonial Film project was made possible through the participation of the BFI National Archive, the Imperial War Museum and the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum. Links to these institutions can be found at the bottom of all pages on this site.

The BFI National Archive

The BFI National Archive was founded (as the National Film Library) in 1935. Several name-changes - and paradigm-shifts of culture and technology - later it holds one of the largest collections of film and television in the world. In particular, its founders’ foresight in placing equal weight on the ‘Film of Record’ alongside (and overlapping with) ‘the Art of Film’ has resulted in an exceptionally rich record of non-fiction filmmaking, with which British cinema and television has for so long been so closely associated. Inevitably, the Archive’s collections both of fiction and non-fiction include much material reflecting the history of Britain’s engagement with, and disengagement from, its Empire over the course of the 20th Century.

In Britain, preservation of moving image has never been securely underpinned by legislation, such as the Statutory Deposit that applies to books (and to film in some other countries).  The only partial exceptions are recent decades’ provisions for off-air recording of television, and the acquisition of government films designated as Public Record, which are collected in contractual collaboration with The National Archives under the Public Records Act (1958).  In the case of material directly related to the British Empire, official production (such as films with colonial subjects or settings made by the Empire Marketing Board or by the Crown Film Unit) has often been acquired under these Public Record arrangements. Official films made for local colonial administrations (usually by dedicated units such as the Central African Film Unit, the Gold Coast Film Unit and several others), rather than directly for departments of the UK government in London, fall outside these arrangements. Acquired from various sources, they are valuable components of the colonial film corpus, though these collections have usually survived incomplete.

As in these cases, the BFI’s film collection - and therefore our present perspective on colonial film production - reflects a history of donation, over many decades, from depositors falling into numerous categories from filmmakers, laboratories and distributors through private individuals finding cans of film in their attics. Empire-set feature films have arrived from various sources including Studios themselves (this particularly applies to feature films produced on 35mm nitrate stock before 1951). At the opposite end of the spectrum, amateur films – mainly 16mm films taken by families associated with British colonial governance, most especially with the British Raj in India – have generally been deposited by those families, or by their descendents. Between these extremes, the following categories of production are among those most heavily represented in the BFI’s ‘colonial’ collections: early ‘actuality’ films and later travelogues filmed in locations across the Empire; classroom and other educational films, notably those produced by British Instructional Films and Gaumont-British Instructional in the interwar period; industrial films sponsored by firms and other organisations operating in colonial territory.  All of these have their non-colonial counterparts. The exception is the missionary film (non-professional or semi-professional production by religious societies such as the Methodist Missionary Society). This is a ‘genre’ that (within the BFI collection at any rate) is largely confined to colonial settings.

For the BFI National Archive, involvement in Colonial Film: Moving Images of Empire represented a unique opportunity further to improve the Archive’s records of these holdings, catalogued over many decades by many hands, and then to make those records available in easily searchable form alongside those of other institutions. It also enabled the BFI’s British Empire films to be examined as a single body of work, enabling patterns of content and form, production and distribution, to emerge more clearly than before. The contextual information and analyses collated by the project’s researchers add significant value to these films for future users, who themselves fall into several categories: academic  and commercial users, educational and general audiences. It is a pleasure to have been associated with the project, to enjoy the fruits of its research - and to look forward eagerly to the future research and use of these collections that it is likely to inspire.

Patrick Russell, Senior Curator (Non-Fiction), BFI National Archive


Imperial War Museum 

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British Empire and Commonwealth Museum

The award winning British Empire & Commonwealth Museum is the first major institution in the United Kingdom to present the 500-year history and legacy of Britain's overseas empire. The Museum opened in 2002, is a registered charity, and is independent of Government. 

The archive itself comprises over one million still images and 400 hours of film footage, dating from circa 1860 to the present day. Its images provide a range of perspectives on the British Empire & Commonwealth and cover a variety of topics across a diverse range of countries. Key themes include colonial life, indigenous cultures, political and royal events, wars and conflicts, notable personalities, ceremonial and sporting occasions, industrial and commercial activities, and labour and leisure. 

The main galleries at the Museum are now closed, pending relocation to London. The Museum Archive is currently closed, and can only accept research requests relating to the Palestine Police archive. The online trading arm of the British Empire & Commonwealth Museum's Commercial Archives Department, Images of Empire, presents our photographic collections online, opening our archives to all who can access the Internet, and helping to support the museum by creating a new commercial resource to professional picture and film researchers.