Earlier this month I was in Bristol visiting for a friend’s birthday; I had a couple of hours to spare before my coach home to Birmingham was due so I decided to tackle the steep and winding roads that led me to the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. Knowing I only had the time to see one gallery or exhibition, my attention was drawn immediately towards Empire Through the Lens located on the second floor exhibition gallery. During my time at university I developed a keen interest in the contested history of the British Empire and the ways it continues to impact both Britons and post-colonial people.
The exhibition included 27 photographs that were taken from the British Empire and Commonwealth Collection at Bristol Archives and chosen specifically by people with personal connections to the image or photographer, also by writers, broadcasters and historians, including David Olusoga.
What struck me most was the insight each photograph gave to that place and the scene that the photographer had manufactured. Also fascinating was the descriptions that each contributor gave as to why they had chosen that image and the historical context that the text panels gave to the image. Relevance of the images to current events and challenges still faced by post-colonial nations were very eye-opening.
One image I found particularly interesting is the ‘Woolworth’s opening’ photograph taken in Barbados. The origins of the shop are characteristic of the British Empire: British style, customs (in this case shopping habits) and management were imposed on locals who were employed on the shop floor. The irony of the image is the fact that ‘Woolies’ disappeared from British high streets nearly a decade ago, and yet the shop in Barbados continues to thrive. Despite the initial imposition of the company by the British, it was sold into local ownership in the 1980s and has faired much better than it’s British counterparts.
Many of the images in the exhibition are much more shocking and unsettling than the one I have focused on here and expose the dark sides of British colonialism that continued well into the 20th century.
Bristol itself, like many major UK cities, has extensive connections to the British Empire as a major port. Recent debates have been circulating about whether names and monuments associated with past slave traders should be renamed to avoid any hint of wrongful celebration of Britain’s dark past or whether they should be kept as they are to ensure we do not erase history and learn from its mistakes. Colston Hall is one such contested site in Bristol, named after prominent slave trader Edward Colston; the music hall has recently announced that it will change it’s name when it reopens in 2020 after a campaign by local people, music artists and anti-racism activists.
The exhibition, Empire Though the Lens, is running until summer 2018 and is well worth a visit if you are in the Bristol area.
Featured Image: Woolworth’s, publicity photograph photography by an unknown photographer, Bridgetown, Barbados, 1956