Objects of Empire

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.

"If empire... was central to the domestic world of Britain itself, this did not preclude the judicious turning of a host of blind eyes."

Kirsten Mckenzie, 'Britain: Ruling the Waves'

Our Project

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  project, which originally included an exhibition at Walton Library from 2020-21, 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 publish a new list of items in our collections which reveal forgotten ties to the British Empire, and recognize these links more consistently across all our displays 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.


Under the headings below, you will find 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.

Empire in Thoughts In Elmbridge Museum's collection, strands of imperial thought can be picked up in a number of objects. Discover a selection of these items in this section

Go to Empire in Thoughts
Empire in Homes Many domestic items in Elmbridge Museum's collection are linked to the British Empire through their materials, design, usage, or imagery. Explore some of these items here.

Go to Empire in Homes
Empire in the Landscape The vast fortunes and wealth generated across the British Empire was often invested in the borough's landscape. Take a look at some of them through objects in this section.

Go to Empire in the Landscape
Objects of Empire Revisited We're continuing the Objects of Empire project's legacy by exploring 11 extra items in our collection with links to the former British Empire. Discover them in our blog.

Go to Objects of Empire Revisited

Curator's Talk

Museums and Empire with Dr. Alison Smith

Elmbridge Museum’s Exhibitions & Interpretation Officer chats to Dr Alison Smith, Chief Curator at the National Portrait Gallery. Alison was formerly a curator at Tate Britain, and responsible for leading their hugely successful ‘Artist and Empire’ exhibition in 2015, which explored responses to the British Empire within British art.

This video includes discussion of the amazing objects used, the challenges that arose throughout the process, and thoughts on how museums can continue to explore hidden links to Empire in their collections in the future.

Discover more Curator's Talks

Audio Tour

Elmbridge and Empire

In this route you can discover many of the historic links to the British Empire across our local Elmbridge landscape – in places we still see, visit, and use every day. The perfect activity as a weekend drive, a cycle ride, or even split into smaller sections for a long walk.

Start the Elmbridge and Empire Tour
Booklist icon

Books of the Exhibition

Fancy exploring Objects of Empire further?

We’ve picked out twenty titles which delve into this topic, from fiction to non-fiction, biography, kids novels and more – there’s something for everyone.

Find all of these brilliant books in your local Surrey Library branch!

Click through the pages here or download the booklist below.

Ten Cities that made an Empire

'Ten cities that made an empire', Tristram Hunt

Tristram Hunt

Uncovering the stories and perspectives of the ten most prominent cities of the British Empire.

Category: General Overview

View this book in the Surrey Libraries catalogue

Britain's Slave Empire

'Britain's Slave Empire' by James Walvin

James Walvin

Highlighting Britain’s heavy involvement in the trade of enslaved people across the globe, and how this influenced British culture and domestic life.

Category: General Overview

View this book in the Surrey Libraries catalogue

Heaven's Command (Pax Britannica trilogy)

'Heaven's Command' by Jan Morris

Jan Morris

‘Heavan’s Command’ is the first in a series of three fascinating books, tracking the progress of the British Empire from the reign of Queen Victoria.

Category: General Overview

View this book in the Surrey Libraries catalogue

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India

'Inglorious empire: What the British did to India', by Shashi Tharoor

Shashi Tharoor

A novel which highlights the self-interested, destructive nature of the British Empire’s presence in India.

Category: Britain’s effects on its colonies

View this book in the Surrey Libraries catalogue

Britain's Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya

'Britain's Gulag' by Caroline Elkins

Caroline Elkins

This book successfully breaks through popular narratives about the British Empire’s decline across Africa, revealing its vi olent retreat from Kenya.

Category: Britain’s effects on its colonies

View this book in the Surrey Libraries catalogue

The World's War: Forgotten Soldiers of Empire

'The world's war: forgotten soldiers of empire', by David Olusoga

David Olusoga

Taking a less traditional approach to the First World War, David Olusoga tells its story through the lens of the Empire.

Category: Britain’s effects on its colonies

View this book in the Surrey Libraries catalogue

Empire: What Ruling the World Did to the British

'Empire: What Ruling the World Did to the British', by Jeremy Paxman

Jeremy Paxman

Outlining, through an engaging and witty narrative, the remarkable ways in which Britain’s imperial past has affected – and still affects – life in Britain.

Category: The Empire’s effects on Britain

View this book in the Surrey Libraries catalogue

Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent

'Insurgent empire: anticolonial resistance and British dissent' by Priyamvada Gopal

Priyamvada Gopal

Published in 2020, this excellent title explores the often-forgotten resistance movements organised by the colonised against their British colonisers.

Category: Resistance to Empire

View this book in the Surrey Libraries catalogue

Partition Voices: Untold British Stories

'Partition Voices: Untold British stories' by Kavita PuriBooklist Partition Voices

Kavita Puri

Exploring the fascinating stories of the forceful end of India’s British Raj, from the first-hand perspective of people who lived through it.

Category: Primary accounts

View this book in the Surrey Libraries catalogue

Women of the Raj: The Mothers, Wives and Daughters of the British Empire in India

'Women of the Raj: the mothers, wives and daughters of the British Empire in India' by Margaret MacMillanBooklist Women of the Raj

Margaret MacMillan

An eye-opening primary account of the women who played a role in everyday life in the British Raj, told through letters, memoirs and oral history interviews.

Category: Primary accounts

View this book in the Surrey Libraries catalogue

Another Man's War: The Story of a Burma Boy in Britain's Forgotten African Army

'Another man's war: the story of a Burma Boy in Britain's forgotten African army', by Barnaby Phillips

Barnaby Phillips

The remarkable true story of Isaac Fadoyebo, who ran away from his West African village at the age of 16 to join the British Army’s defence of the Empire in the Second World War.

Category: Biography

View this book in the Surrey Libraries catalogue

The Siege of Krishnapur

'The Siege of Krishnapur', by J. G. FarrellBooklist The Siege of Krishnapur

J. G. Farrell

Partially based on true events, this incredible fictional story adds much insight into the potential feelings of the communities in India on the advent of the Indian Rebellion of 1857.

Category: Empire in fiction

View this book in the Surrey Libraries catalogue

Burmese Days

'Burmese Days', by George Orwell

George Orwell

This classic fiction novel was published in 1934, and is set in British Burma on the eve of the downfall of the British Empire in India.

Category: Empire in fiction

View this book in the Surrey Libraries catalogue

The Hungry Empire: How Britain's Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World

'The hungry empire: how Britain's quest for food shaped the modern world', by Lizzie CollinghamBooklist The Hungry Empire

Lizzie Collingham

This interesting take on the British Empire explores its many aspects through the medium of food – from the meals which made their way to plates across the world to the global trade networks that got them there.

Category: Empire from new perspectives

View this book in the Surrey Libraries catalogue

Imperial Boredom: Monotony and the British Empire

'Imperial boredom: monotony and the British Empire', by Jeffrey A. Auerbach

Jeffrey A. Auerbach

An innovative new approach to the British Empire at its height, arguing that the experience of this global force was, if fact, chiefly characterized by boredom and monotony.

Category: Empire from new perspectives

View this book in the Surrey Libraries catalogue

Under Every Leaf: How Britain Played the Greater Game from Afghanistan to Africa

'Under Every Leaf: How Britain played the greater game from Afghanistan to Africa', by William Beaver

William Beaver

Unveiling the incredible tale of Britain’s first spies, based at the outposts of Britain’s vast former Empire.

Category: Empire from new perspectives

View this book in the Surrey Libraries catalogue

Artist and Empire

'Artist and Empire' by Dr. Alison Smith

Dr. Alison Smith

Published to accompany the exhibition held at Tate Britain in 2015-16, this brilliant title brings together some of history’s top scholars to scrutinise objects and artworks linked to life under British rule.

Category: Empire through art

View this book in the Surrey Libraries catalogue

Illustrating Empire: A Visual History of British Imperialism

'Illustrating empire: a visual history of British imperialism' by Ashley Jackson and David Tomkins

Ashley Jackson and David Tomkins

This thought-provoking book approaches the British Empire from a different angle – that of the image, using propaganda, paintings and records to illustrate its history.

Category: Empire through art

View this book in the Surrey Libraries catalogue

Victoria and Abdul: The True Story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant

'Victoria and Abdul: The true story of the Queen’s Closest Confidant' by Sharabani Basu

Sharabani Basu

The incredible true story, since adapted into film, of Queen Victoria’s relationship with one of her closest confidants. This young Indian Muslim played a huge part during British India’s most turbulent years.

Category: Empire in film

View this book in the Surrey Libraries catalogue

Barmy British Empire

'Barmy British Empire' by Terry Deary

Terry Deary

This absorbing ‘Horrible Histories’ kids’ title builds up a great basis of knowledge on the history of the British Empire for those new to the topic, packed full of amazing facts and cartoon sketches.

Category: Introduction to Empire for kids

View this book in the Surrey Libraries catalogue

Download the full Exhibition Booklist here

Elmbridge and Empire
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Tell us your thoughts!

Leave a comment about Objects of Empire here. We always love to hear your feedback!
On Sat 23rd October 2021 at 15:41, Michael said:

I just saw a fabulous talk by Amy for our Historical society. She showed me how to access this great website and particularly the Audio trail. brilliant website thanks for all the had work involved. Really love this.

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