Museum of the British Empire and Commonwealth

In-house historical adviser Katherine Prior introduces this new museum which opens at the end of September.

A new museum opens in Bristol this month. Some ten years in the making, the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum offers the public an accessible history of the British empire and its many legacies. It confronts controversial issues such as racism, economic exploitation, and cultural imperialism. And it canvasses a wide range of experiences of imperial rule and divergent opinions about it.

Critics have been hot off the mark. Back in June, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown told readers of the Independent to beware its ‘bogus history’. Two weeks later, Scotland’s Sunday Times complained about the museum having ‘air-brushed’ the Scots from its displays. Historian Michael Fry brand-ed its approach as ‘very evil’.

I write as the museum’s in-house historical adviser and hence bear some responsibility for any evils on show. I know we should be grateful for the publicity. But it seems rough to get such a pounding before we have even opened. What is the hostility about?

The answer lies in the history of the museum itself and also in Britain’s continuing reluctance to address its imperial past. The founding trustees first mooted a museum dedicated to the history and legacy of the empire in the 1980s. They felt that the subject’s unpopularity, especially in government arts and museum circles, was jeopardising an important part of Britain’s history and that future generations risked finding big gaps in the historical record. They also felt that Britons of all races had to know this history if they were to make sense of their society and to move confidently into the future.

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