Unfashionable or bold, Britain's newest museum puts the empire back on the map

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The Independent Online

Perhaps it is Britain's most unfashionable museum, perhaps it is the boldest.

Perhaps it is Britain's most unfashionable museum, perhaps it is the boldest.

Last night in Bristol on a proposed World Heritage site, the nation at last saw the opening of an institution to examine, question and maybe even celebrate the British Empire.

Astonishingly, the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum on the site of Brunel's railway sheds at the oldest railway terminus in the world is the first museum in the country dedicated to the history of the Empire.

Holland and Belgium have had such museums for years. But Britain's postwar psychological discomfort with thehistory of Empire has never made this a popular project.

Indeed, as the Dome received its latest multi-million- pound injection from theNational Lottery, the soleapplication from the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum for a mere £1m has been rejected. There was no government presence at last night's opening.

Nevertheless, the £4m fund-raising effort by the museum's trustees to increase its exhibition potential has got off to a good start. One of the trustees, Sir Jack Hayward, the Wolves football club chairman who is resident in the Bahamas has given £1m of his own money. The museum has no public funding.

History of the Empire is barely taught in schools and universities, says the museum's director, Dr Gareth Griffiths. He notes that history of the Commonwealth will be part of the national curriculum from 2002, when the museum could prove a particularly useful resource.

But Dr Griffiths, a former Oxford University historian, does not hide from the ambivalence many feel towards the project. When the trustees first decided to use the space next to Temple Meads station for the museum eight years ago, he recalled that "people wondered why we wanted to do this. The words British and Empire evoke racism and exploitation, but it's a subject we actually don't know much about because it's no longer taught. The perception of that period comes from film and TV."

But he feels a change in attitude came in 1997 with the handover of Hong Kong. That event suggested the time had come to take stock and asses the impact and legacy of Empire. There is likely to be an even greater need for such an institution as this decade will see the 50th anniversary of Macmillan's Winds of Change speech and the fifth anniversaries of independence for a number of African countries.

In Bristol of all cities the subject of slavery cannot be ignored and the museum contains archives with documents about the slave trade.

As yet the new museum, a big room filled with frame photographs of life in India and the Caribbean, and a large cube in which one can listen to aural histories, does not do justice to the enormity of its subject. With luck, Sir Jack Hayward's money will help to provide more resonant and memorable exhibits.

The museum has built up a sizeable collection of documents, photographs, uniforms and donated objects including a Rhodesian railway carriage, a Nepalese skull used as a ritual vessel and golden weights from Ghana.

But most provocative of all are the constantly playing tapes of interviews with people who have experienced Empire at first hand - colonial administrators, missionaries, Indian nationalists, servants and gun runners as well as soldiers on National Service in Kenya who suddenly found they had reason to question the British presence there.

And the real delights are in the accounts of people now advanced in age, recounting their personal history in the most evocative and occasionally surprisingly lyrical language. There is the upper-class lady now in her 90s recalling her childhood in the Raj: "Of course, you know, an elephant always met the train." She then dreamily reminisces of going on an elephant and "hearing the jungle wake up".

She talks of her Ayah, the Indian nanny "who of course we loved more than our mother". She says: "The Ayah used to sit outside with a little hurricane lamp, you could hear her bangles, there was a lovely feeling of security."

An African woman talks of her father, a medicine man, and his attempts to transmit his wisdom to his son.

Many of the interviewees are clearly pleased totell their stories at last and still glory in them. Randal Sadlier, a district officer in Tanzania in 1948, remembers: "It was a lovely district actually, it was about five or six thousand square miles, about the size of Northern Ireland, it had about 100,000 people and a delightful collection of chiefs."

Another person recalls his childhood in Malawi in the 1920s, saying: "To get us on to the tug from the ship at Chindi we were all lowered into a kind of laundry basket and bumped on to the deck. When we got to the other end we had to be grasped manually by large black arms and rushed through the waves and put on the beach. That's how we landed in Africa."

But this is a museum that is determined to be even-handed and show more than one side of Britain's imperial history. As you listen to these nostalgic accounts you look at a wall on which is written a statistic that the British shipped 350,000 slaves out of Africa during the 1780s, a figure that rose to 420,000 by the 1790s.

Dr Griffiths says: "We are not glamorous or nostalgic about Empire. But it needs to be out in the open; and wecan be a focus for debate and discussion."