The historic British Empire saw Britain establish colonies and exert power over territories across the globe. At its height, it comprised around 26% of the world’s land mass, making it the largest empire in history.
The British Empire is a fraught topic. Most notorious for its overseas colonies in the Americas, India and large parts of the African continent, the tradition in British history has been to view the Empire as a positive force for advancement in colonised countries, as well as a symbol of Britain’s past domination. Yet much of our country’s imperial expansion across the globe was violent, destructive and self-interested, and the memories of this history in the countries subjected to British force are sometimes very different to the rose-tinted stories which have become part of the mainstream narrative.
To this day, the British Empire presents a challenging, contentious history, and one which has been under fresh scrutiny in recent years. Many historians disagree on the topic, and its sensitive nature can often render it difficult to engage with. The problem is aggravated by the fact that few students are given the opportunity to learn about the topic as part of their history education. Yet from its foundation, Empire has permeated virtually every aspect of historic life – interwoven into our landscape, homes and thoughts on both a national and highly localised level. It was an inescapable reality for the people of the past, the impact of which can still be felt in most parts of our present day.
Despite this, museums often avoid recognising the links to Empire in their collections due to its potential to divide audiences. Local history, especially, might seem worlds away from the imperial armies, merchant ships, and foreign power structures of the colonial landscape, giving many museums no incentive to delve deeper and uncover now hidden stories. Objects which would reveal everyday ties to Empire through their imagery, usage, or materials are therefore interpreted differently. As a consequence, the evidence of Empire is slowly washed away, and our view of history is distorted and incomplete.
Elmbridge Museum has over 40,000 diverse and remarkable objects in its collection. These range from Stone Age flints to Victorian textiles, Tudor tiles to contemporary art and photography. For over 100 years the museum has actively collected objects which tell the story of our borough, chiefly through donations, purchase and local excavations. In this online project, which will eventually go on display at Walton Library, we have started by taking just 20 of these objects, using the research and commentary of expert historians to look at them through the lens of the history of the British Empire. Each year, we will publish a new list of 20 items in our collections which reveal forgotten ties to the British Empire, and recognize these links more consistently in all future exhibitions by using keywords and signage to highlight the objects with a connection to Britain’s imperial past.
Look around the heritage sector today and you will see many other museums engaging in similar work, from the pivotal Artist and Empire exhibition at Tate Britain in 2015 which contrasted historic art with contemporary interpretations, to the Empire Through the Lens community photography project at Bristol Museums in 2017, to the forthcoming Displays of Power: A Natural History of Empire exhibition at the Grant Museum of Zoology.
By beginning to reveal some of the links to Empire within our objects and our Borough, we are not providing a comprehensive history of this huge topic. But, by adding new interpretations and previously forgotten perspectives, museums can aid the vital first step towards making this part of our history accessible to everyone, enabling a more informed discussion and understanding of the British Empire’s impact at every level of society.
Below, you will find links to the British Empire explored through a variety of objects in the Elmbridge Museum collection. This selection reflects the British Empire's historic presence within local thought, homes, and the landscape.