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Museum Press Releases.

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Breaking the Chains Nominated for National Award

The current exhibition ‘Breaking the Chains’ at the British Empire & Commonwealth Museum has been long-listed for a £100,000 arts award. The Art Fund Prize for Museums and Galleries (formerly The Gulbenkian Prize) is the UK's most valued arts prize.

The £1million Heritage Lottery funded exhibition opened in April 2007 as the centerpiece of Bristol’s bicentennial commemorations for the abolition of the slave trade. 'Breaking the Chains' uses modern techniques such as video, sound stations, personal experiences and opinions to explore the history of the slave trade and questions why we are still living with slavery and legacies of the trade today.

Anne Lineen, the Exhibition Manager responsible for developing the galleries of ‘Breaking the Chains’ says, 'We are delighted that the hard work and dedication of everyone involved in this exhibition, including local people, community groups, academic advisors and staff, has been recognised at such a prestigious, national level. We have had fantastic feedback from our visitors and hope that this will encourage even more people to come and experience the exhibition'.

The British Empire and Commonwealth Museum competes with nine other museums and galleries across the UK for the coveted prize. It will be awarded to the museum or gallery whose project demonstrates the most "originality, imagination and excellence". The diverse long list includes a unique exhibition created by soldiers, a groundbreaking new space that brings together medicine, life and art and a remarkable collection of 20th Century British art displayed in a series of historic harbourside buildings in the Orkneys. Also on the list are the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, an entirely volunteer-led project overlooking the Exe Estuary in Devon, four leading London venues and a new museum and archive in Scotland’s most northerly islands.

Sue MacGregor, Chair of the Judges, comments: ‘We're going to have an exciting and absorbing time visiting all ten museums and galleries. Some of them are relatively small - Orkney's Pier Arts Centre or Woking's ultra modern Lightbox museum for instance. Others are huge and all- embracing, like the Wellcome Collection of the History of Medicine in London, or tightly focussed, like the soldiers' own version of the conflict in Afghanistan's Helmand province, at the National Army Museum. There are two different exhibitions to consider on the history of the Slave Trade: one in Liverpool and one in Bristol. Eventually ten must be whittled down to one - but I know we'll all have been bowled over by the imagination and inspiration we've encountered on the way.’

Following judges’ visits, four museums and galleries will be short-listed and announced in early April. The winner will be announced on Thursday 22nd May at the Royal Institute of British Architects in London during Museum and Galleries Month 2008.

Please support us by giving your thoughts and comments on the exhibition's nomination by visiting

Museum announces move to London

The British Empire & Commonwealth Museum has announced plans to move its core operations to London. The Board of Trustees of the independent charity has taken the decision to relocate the institution to secure its long-term future, and to reach a larger international audience. The award-winning Museum, that recently celebrated its fifth anniversary, is in negotiations over a major cultural venue in the capital to house its existing archives and to accommodate an ambitious programme of major exhibitions and events.

The move is in line with the Museum’s long term plans to become a leading international centre for the learning, research and understanding of Britain’s colonial past. It is the first and only Museum in the world to explore the history of the British Empire and its emergence into today’s Commonwealth, and has been widely praised for tackling contested and controversial histories.

Dr Gareth Griffiths, Director of the Museum says

"Relocation to London presents a major opportunity for the Museum to widen its reach and engage new audiences with this important and formative part of our shared past. We have enjoyed great success over the last five years of operation and are extremely grateful to the people of Bristol and all those who have supported us. We hope that Bristolians will take the opportunity to catch our acclaimed exhibitions over the coming year and support our transition to this next exciting stage."

The Museum was opened in October 2002 by its Patron HRH The Princess Royal. It has since attracted visitors from all over the world and received recognition in more than ten industry and tourism awards and nominations.

In its first five years of operation the Museum has:

  • Become one of only two institutions in the UK to be short-listed three years running in the 2003 - 2005 Museums and Heritage Awards for Excellence, winning the title in the first year
  • Staged five successful exhibitions covering topics such as Migration, Native American culture, globalisation and the Transatlantic Slave Trade
  • Reached the final round of the 2004 European Museum of the Year award
  • Delivered a Community Radio Station ‘Commonwealth FM’ service for three consecutive years
  • Won the 2004 Sandford Award for Heritage Education and the 2004 Good Britain Guide award
  • Completed the £7million restoration of the Grade 1 listed ‘Old Bristol Station’
  • Acquired over 75,000 artefacts and historic items ranging from film and photographs to costume and art
  • Attracted significant research funding to explore its collections in Universities across the UK
  • Hosted over one hundred lectures, talks and debates including the high profile ‘Apology Debate’ in May 2005
  • Garnered the public support of leading political and cultural figures such as Tony Benn, Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sir Trevor Phillips OBE and local campaigner Paul Stephenson
  • Led Bristol’s 2007 commemorations for the abolition of the slave trade with the landmark exhibition ‘Breaking the Chains’.

It is anticipated that the move will enable the Museum to expand upon the range of topics covered in connection with Britain’s colonial past and continue to address the contemporary legacies of this history today. In May 2008 the Museum will host an international conference in partnership with Kings College London marking the 60th anniversary of the end of the British mandate in Palestine. Plans for a ground-breaking exhibition on the Palestine Mandate are currently underway, in addition to a touring exhibition entitled ‘Serving Empire’, reflecting the lives of those who worked in outposts of the British colonies. Further exhibitions up until 2010 have also been confirmed in conjunction with London partners.

Visitors holding an Annual Pass or Friends Membership will be entitled to use any remaining validity for free entry to the new exhibitions, opening in London.

Both the Museum’s permanent galleries and the current exhibition on the abolition of the slave trade, ‘Breaking the Chains’, will remain open to the public until Autumn 2008.

Reverend Jesse Jackson visits Breaking the Chains to highlight inequality

Rev Jesse Jackson Speaking in the Brunel Passenger Shed

International civil rights activist Reverend Jesse Jackson visited the British Empire & Commonwealth Museum at the start of a UK tour to highlight and tackle issues of inequality. The event was organised by the 1990 Trust and Operation Black Vote as part of the 'Equanomics UK' campaign.

Mr Jackson said he was heading the campaign to encourage more black people in Britain to use their vote and also commented that the margin of those not registered to vote was "enough to decide who is the next prime minister".

The 65-year-old campaigner - who worked with Martin Luther King and was with him when he was assassinated in 1968 - visited the Breaking the Chains exhibition marking the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. He told reporters that the Breaking the Chains exhibition was about a struggle for freedom but "the fight today is for equality, the presence of opportunity." Pointing to pictures of enslaved Africans, he said: "We can't have 300 years of this treatment and expect to bounce back in a generation or two. It's going to take some time to repair."

He later gave an animated speech to an audience of 500 guests in the Museum's Passenger Shed, before departing to continue his tour. For more information on the Equanomics UK Tour visit:

Young ambassadors in Bristol lead their peers in national slave trade debate

From rear left: Harriet Mortimer, Dharani Pillay, Paul Stephenson, Emma Falconer. From front left: Jenny Mulinder & Emma Coughlan.

Young people from Bristol have met with civil rights campaigner Paul Stephenson after being selected to champion a national initiative exploring the legacies of the transatlantic slave trade. The teenagers visited the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum to discuss ‘The Big Conversation 2007’ - a national competition and debate organised by the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) and Understanding Slavery - and the importance of understanding the subject in the context of modern day issues.

The visit took place on 23rd August, the UNESCO International Day for the Remembrance of the transatlantic slave trade and its Abolition. Bristol’s champions for ‘The Big Conversation 2007’ marked the day by viewing the current exhibition Breaking the Chains, discussing their ideas with Paul Stephenson and encouraging other young people in Bristol to participate in the competition.

Paul Stephenson, a prominent member of the Bristol community with a keen interest in the history of the slave trade, heard first hand from the young people what they hope to achieve from the competition. Paul said: “The slave trade is an integral part of Bristol’s history and it is very important that young people understand its legacies and impact upon our community. ‘The Big Conversation 2007’ is a great opportunity for young people in the area to develop their own understanding of the issue. I would encourage young people in Bristol to visit the museum and tap into other local resources to develop their competition entries.”

Young ambassador Jenny Mullinder, aged 16, from Lawrence Weston in Bristolsaid: "‘The Big Conversation 2007’ is a great initiative to get young people interested in the topic of slavery. It’s important that young people are given a chance to put forward their views on this issue and the Bristol Empire and Commonwealth Museum is a great place to start your research when preparing your competition entry."

Dharani Pillay, Outreach and Learning Manager at the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum, said: "The Breaking the Chains exhibition is an excellent resource for those entering ‘The Big Conversation 2007’ competition. The exhibition will help young people understand the realities of slavery and how it has impacted on all our lives. KS3 teachers in Bristol are encouraged to enter their students as it's a tremendous opportunity for young people to look at contemporary issues such as citizenship, human rights and identity and explore them through the study of the transatlantic slave trade."

‘The Big Conversation 2007’ competition, debate and showcase has been devised to encourage 11 to 14 year olds from schools and youth groups across the country to research and discuss the legacies of the transatlantic slave trade.

For further information click here.

Paul Boateng Visits 'Breaking The Chains'

Anne Lineen, Museum exhibitions manager, with Mr & Mrs Paul Boateng and Mr & Mrs Paul Stephenson

The Right Honourable Paul Boateng, the first person of African descent to be elected to the British Parliament, visited the ‘Breaking the Chains’ slavery exhibition at the British Empire & Commonwealth Museum on Wednesday 18th July. Mr Boateng also met with civil rights’ campaigner Paul Stephenson and representatives of the Bristol Black Archives Partnership.

Mr Boateng, a graduate of the University of Bristol, represented Brent South in London between 1987 and 2005. He also became Britain’s first government minister of African or Afro-Caribbean descent when appointed to the Cabinet as Chief Secretary to the Treasury in 2002. He is currently British High Commissioner to South Africa.

Dr Gareth Griffiths, Director of the British Empire & Commonwealth Museum, said he was delighted to welcome back Paul Boateng to Bristol. "Mr. Boateng assisted the Museum in its early development by launching one of its first temporary exhibitions almost ten years ago. This is a great opportunity to show him, in his important role as British High Commissioner to South Africa, the exciting projects that are being developed with African and Caribbean countries as part of the 'Breaking the Chains' exhibition."

Television Documentaries Reveal Unseen Film Footage from Empire Museum's Archives

Rare film and photography from the image archives of the British Empire & Commonwealth Museum will be revealed to the public for the first time in two major television documentaries. The archives, which shed light on the private lives of British colonial families in the former Empire, contribute significant amounts of footage used in the BBC2 series 'Lost World of the Raj' and in the Channel Four series 'Empire's Children'.

The Museum's collections contain a wealth of amateur film and photography, including material taken during the traumatic period of decolonisation. Researchers at the British Empire & Commonwealth Museum have spent almost seven years cataloguing around 600 hours of film footage and over one million still images. The Museum's online resource launched last year, is already the largest dedicated digital resource of still and moving images on the British colonial period despite representing only a tiny proportion of the Museum's image archive.

Jo Hopkins, head of the Museum's image archive, is delighted that unseen material from the Museum's collections will be broadcast. "These leading documentary film-makers could have used many other historic archives around the UK but chose to work with our extraordinary amateur collections." The majority of the material supplied by the Museum was donated by families across the UK and can be likened to the 'home-movies' and family photo albums made today.

The six-part series 'Empire's Children', due to be transmitted from 2nd July 2007, will look at the end of empire and how its legacies impact on today's Britain. The programme will trace the family histories of several household names and celebrities, piecing together their past lives using authentic film footage. Following the success of 'Who Do You Think You Are?' the show's producers are also launching a website to accompany the series, which also utilises the Museum's extensive collections.

The forthcoming BBC series 'Lost World of the Raj' will uncover experiences of the empire's decline in India between the 1920s and the 1940s. Almost ninety per cent of the film footage in the series is from the Museum's archive. Jan Vaughan, the BBC researcher for the series, explains how the collections show an entirely new perspective on this period of history:

"A lot came from affluent families who had enough money to afford what was a relatively expensive hobby, and enough leisure to pursue it. The film shows people going about their everyday lives: family events like weddings and christenings; walking the dog; riding, playing tennis and golf; all spiced up with grand social occasions and ceremony, and the quite amazing journeys undertaken in the workaday world of the Raj".

The three-part documentary is due to be broadcast on 15th, 22nd and 29th June on BBC2.

The British Empire & Commonwealth Museum's image and film archive is continuing to expand as further collections become available. Individual's interested in donating or loaning items can contact the Museum on 0117 925 4980

Breaking the Chains Receives a Royal Opening

The British Empire & Commonwealth Museum

HRH The Princess Royal, the Museum's Patron, officially opened a major new Museum exhibition on Monday 23rd April 2007. A audience of four hundred distinguished guests including High Commissions from Commonwealth countries and leading Ministers and academics welcomed The Princess who spent the morning viewing the six new galleries and meeting Museum staff and supporters.

In an opening speech, The Princess commended the project: "It is a pleasure to return to the Museum a mere five years after opening it. In five years it has established a reputation for engaging challenging history. The Breaking the Chains exhibition is an example of the way the Museum works to present the past. For me it is a very agreeable task to congratulate everyone involved in bringing the exhibition to fruition."

Baroness Ros Howells of St Davids, Meg Munn, Minister for Women and Barbara Janke Leader of Bristol City Council also spoke in support of the exhibition and encouraged the public to visit this exhibition.

Breaking the Chains will run for 18 months and is open daily from 10.00am to 5.00pm. For more information click here.

Hilary Benn MP Breaking the Chains

Hilary Benn MP was the guest speaker at the launch of Bristol's Fair Trade Fortnight held in the Museum's Brunel's boardroom. He addressed the packed room which included guests from Oxfam, Bristol Council, Christian Aid and many others involved with fair trade in the city. Melba Estrada, a coffee grower from Nicaragua, was the guest of honour and talked to the audience about the difference fair trade has made to the lives of farmers and their families in her community. However, Mr.Benn began his speech by supporting the museum's forthcoming exhibition, Breaking the Chains, describing the impact that slavery still has to this day on Britain and the world. Click below listen to this part of his speech. To hear what he had to say about fair trade click here.

Hilary Benn MP Breaking the Chains.mp3
22/02/2007 | 2,251 KB

Human rights campaigners debate modern-day slavery

The British Empire & Commonwealth Museum

A free public debate entitled 'Slavery: Unfinished Business' took place at the Museum on the 20th February 2007 considering contemporary forms of slavery and what can be done to oppose them.

Over two hundred years ago, hundreds of thousands of people protested against the slave trade by signing petitions to Parliament. Today, slavery and the exploitation of labour continue around the globe, affecting an estimated 12.3 million people.

A panel of distinguished speakers tackled the key issues contributing to the spread of enforced labour and people trafficking around the globe and in the UK . The panellists also suggested proactive methods of prevention and intervention from grass-roots resistance to lobbying governments. The panel included:

Mr Jolyon Jenkins (as Chair)
Senior Producer at BBC network Radio in Bristol. Documentary maker for Radio 4, previously producing programmes for File on 4 and BBC2. Former Deputy Editor of the New Statesman Magazine.

Mr Krishna Upadhyaya
Campaigner and Bonded Labour Programme Officer for Antislavery International.

Dr. Christien van den Anker
Human Rights Expert and Lecturer at the University of the West of England.

Mrs Marian Liebmann
Quaker representative and member of the organisation’s Committee on Racial Equality.

Dr. Tim Brain
Chief Constable of Gloucestershire and Gold Commander for Pentameter (the UK's largest anti-trafficking operation to date). Responsible for leading a second major anti-trafficking operation Pentameter 2 later in 2007.

The event was presented as part of the British Empire & Commonwealth Museum’s Breaking the Chains exhibition and bicentenary programme, and was supported by Anti-Slavery International. For further information on ways to fight modern day slavery visit

For information on future Museum events click here.

Previously Unseen Images of British Colonial Life go Online.

Thousands of photographs and film clips film representing almost one hundred and fifty years of British colonial life are now available online for the first time. The website, developed by the British Empire & Commonwealth Museum was launched on the 16th November 2006 and has already enjoyed thousands of hits and many positive responses from the public.

Visitors to the website are able to explore over 6,000 still images and film clips from the collection, which is currently the UK's largest dedicated resource of photography and film on the British colonial period. The collections provide a range of pictures, both amateur and professional, revealing a wide range of perspectives and experiences. Carol Laslett from Fishponds in Bristol is one of many donors who has given the Museum personal family items, "I thought it was a shame to keep my film hidden away in boxes. I decided to donate copies of my film to Images of Empire so that it could be shared by others and made accessible to researchers around the world".

Images from the archive can be navigated and viewed using an advanced search facility and photographs from the collection are available to order online. Registration is free, enabling users to build light-boxes, order high-resolution files and access supplementary information. Further images from the Museum's collection will be made available online at regular intervals as more donations are received and digitised.

By presenting this collection online, Images of Empire creates a valuable commercial resource for both professional picture buyers and academic researchers, and supports the British Empire & Commonwealth Museum in its mission to provide a national forum for preserving, exploring and studying Britain's cultural heritage associated with the former Empire and today's Commonwealth.

WIN A LIMITED EDITION MOUNTED PRINT: Register with Images of Empire before the 20th December 2006 and you will be automatically entered into a prize draw to win one of twenty-five 10" x 12" mounted prints. To enter complete the free and quick registration at

Native American and Zulu Dancers Thrill Audiences.

Two world-renowned tribal dance troupes performed together at the British Empire & Commonwealth Museum on the 14th and 15th July 2006. It is thought to be the first time ever a Native American troupe has appeared on stage with dancers from the African continent

The Native Nations Dance Theatre Company, from Philadelphia, USA, were joined by leading South African performers, the Mighty Zulu Nation.

Starring for the Native Nations Theatre troupe was Delwin Fiddler Junior, whose Native name is 'Lakota Son'. Delwin is a descendant of the famous Native American 'Sitting Bull' and holds the World Title in Grass Dancing - a rigorous stomping dance performed in special tasselled costume. He also performed a memorable Hoop Dance and played the flute.

The Mighty Zulu Nation showed just why they have earned international acclaim, including performances in front of Nelson Mandela and the Queen. The troupe's men and women performed powerful rhythmic dances and soulful harmonies, both solo and in unison, continuing cultural traditions passed down through past generations.

Held in the Museum's beautifully restored Passenger Shed, the performances brilliantly showcased the culture and traditions of indigenous peoples from two different continents.

The Apology Debate: Wednesday 10th May 2006

Over 500 guests attended a public debate to discuss whether it is right to apologise for the past. The debate concluded with a vote as to whether Bristol should formally apologise for its role in the slave trade. The event was chaired by Professor Anthony C Grayling with a panel of seven other leading cultural commentators:

After a lively debate the audience made a show of hands clearly in favour of Bristol giving a civic apology for its role in the slave trade.

A written questionnaire was taken from the audience and results of a BBC viewer and listener poll were also announced.

Should Bristol apologise for its role in the slave trade?

The Apology Debate audience poll:
62.8 %: YES
26.2 %: NO
11 %: Unanswered

BBC Bristol telephone and website poll:
8.9 %: YES
91.1 %: NO

The debate is the keynote event in the city-wide Festival of Ideas and is the first in a series leading to a major exhibition on the Abolition of the Slave Trade scheduled to open in Bristol in February 2007. For further information on the Museum's plans click here. To subscribe to receive news and information updates about the British Empire & Commonwealth Museum contact us.

The British Empire and Commonwealth Museum would like to thank all those who attended the event and contributed to the poll.

Museum hosts two new TV Shows

The Brunel Factor, ITV West

The British Empire & Commonwealth Museum has been selected as location for The Brunel Factor - a new television show that is searching the West Country for the next budding Brunel.

Engineering students from Bristol University, Bath University and the University of the West of England must present their futuristic ideas to a panel of judges in the Brunel Boardroom, where the great innovator himself met to discuss his own ambitious projects.

The panel of judges includes the inventor James Dyson and the President of the Institution of Civil Engineers, Gordon Masterton. The third judge Andrew Kelly, Director of Brunel 200, is delighted to be taking part:

"This is a great project. We have always seen Brunel 200 as both about a man and the past and the future and one of our aims is to create new Brunels - creative individuals and teams dedicated to solving the problems and meeting the opportunities of our time".

The students have taken inspiration from the Grade 1 listed Museum building, which is the world's earliest surviving purpose-built railway station. Team members were given special access to underground vaults and private areas otherwise closed to the general public.

For more information visit:

More information on the Brunel Tour

The People's Museum, BBC2

The British Empire & Commonwealth Museum is to feature in a unique television series that aims to uncover some of Britain's greatest hidden treasures.

Every museum holds in trust many extraordinary treasures unknown to the rest of the world. Museums across the country will each reveal such an item and for the first time, these objects will have the chance to be given their very own 'great exhibition' in the virtual People's Museum.

In each programme, five museums will be visited and a fascinating artefact from each will be researched and investigated. Museum curators, specialist experts, cultural commentators, and the local community and will all help to shed light on the significance of the chosen artefact.

As the series unfolds, the viewing public will vote for their top fifteen favourite treasures to be entered into The People's Museum for all to enjoy.

The daytime series begins in May 2006.

More information on the Museum's collections

Unique Slavery DVD Launched

On Thursday 22nd September the British Empire & Commonwealth Museum launched a new interactive teacher resource called 'Voices of the transatlantic slave trade'. Heather Tomlinson, Director of Education and Life Long Learning for Bristol City Council also spoke on the importance of teaching the history of the slave trade.

During the evening an invited audience of education professionals and teachers had the opportunity to sample the new DVD, which contains powerful first hand narratives relating to the slave experience and uses actors to dramatise key themes associated with the transatlantic slave trade.

The DVD and pack is now available from the Museum's education department and on sale in the Museum shop.

Distinguished Visitors Enjoy First Visit to Museum

In October 2005 the Museum played host to two of Britain's most distinguished politicians, former Labour Minister Tony Benn and the current Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, MP.

Tony Benn was visiting Bristol to give a lecture on the topic of 'Racism: the legacy of Empire' as part of 'Black History Month' and afterwards took the opportunity to tour the Museum. John Prescott was at the Museum to be briefed by the Director on plans for a proposed exhibition on the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 2007.

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Tel: +44 (0)117 925 4980

Fax: +44 (0)117 954 4849

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