Imperial History and Film Culture

Cross posted from Imperial and Global Forum

three roads to tomorrow (1958)
Screenshot from the BP-sponsored Nigerian documentary ‘Three Roads to Tomorrow’ (1958), available for viewing at the Colonial Film Project.

David Thackeray
University of Exeter

What value do film culture sources have for historians of imperial history and how do we locate them? Readers of this forum (or at least those based in the UK) are likely to be familiar with the AHRC Colonial Film project but many key sources for the study of imperial film remain obscure to those outside film studies circles.

Media History Digital Library is perhaps the most useful resource for considering the culture of world cinema-going in the colonial era. Building on the resources of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and a host of other collections, this site offers a range of film magazines from across the world as well as key pieces of government legislation.

Cinema St. Andrews provides access to various digitised resources, including a full run of the Colonial Film Unit’s magazine Colonial Cinema.

For historians of the Francophone world the website of the Institut national de l’audiovisuel is an invaluable resource, with a range of free-to-access online films.

Some key national film collections are now accessible by Youtube including a collection of National Film and South Archive of Australia movies, films held by Archives New Zealand and the National Film Board of Canada. Recently theBritish Movietone archive also became available online.

Those with an interest in the changing culture of cinema-going in the early twentieth century may also be interested in the Object Stories series curated by the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum and University of Exeter.




In my own teaching, I use colonial film to think about the changing trade relationship between Britain and its empire during the mid- twentieth century. As the Youtube clip above demonstrates, the ways in which west Africa was presented in non-fiction film changed dramatically over time- with the growth of interest in promoting colonial development in the late 1940s and eventual decolonisation in the late 1950s.

Students are split into groups and given a film from the Colonial Film archive to consult. One of the things that they find most surprising is the range of groups which are using film to present stories of changing imperial trade relationships: British companies such as Cadburys and BP, as well as colonial and Dominion governments.

One of the comments that crops up most is the relationship between the Orientalising discourses of colonial film and modern day attempts to promote trade. Opinion is divided on how successful advertising campaigns such as Cadbury’s ‘Zingolo’ (2009) are at evading the motifs of earlier presentations of west Africa in colonial film. However, what is clear is that this legacy remains significant to the present day.*



* Readers may be interested in following the ongoing efforts on Bristol Record Office to recatalogue and maintain the former collections of the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum, which formed an important facet of the Colonial Film project.

Film, trade and empire workshop, Exeter, June 2015 report

Film, trade and empire workshop, Exeter, June 2015 report


A very receptive audience for a tour of the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum with Phil Wickham!


It was a pleasure to recently welcome a range of experts to discuss aspects of the depiction of empire and trade in British and French film culture in collaboration with the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum. Tom Rice (St. Andrews) kicked off proceedings with a paper which discussed the role of film in imperial education in the UK considering the significance of the Empire Marketing Board and British Instructional Films, as well as figures such as William Sellers and Mary Field, in promoting colonial instructional films. As Rice notes, such figures are often overlooked- with significantly more critical attention paid to (atypical) ‘prestige’ films such as Grierson’s Drifters. Patrick Russell (BFI) explored the changing culture of industrial films over the longue duree highlighting connections between documentary networks and trade. Russell the need for more study of the relationship between industrialists and film-makers in understanding the production of these films. Furthermore, he highlighted the importance of the ‘golden age’ of industrial film production between 1945 and the early 1970s and the challenges of understanding how such films became ‘Africanised’ through processes of decolonisation and the internationalisation of production.


Bill Douglas CInema Museum exhibition, Exeter
Bill Douglas CInema Museum exhibition, Exeter

Image from current exhibition on empire and trade at the BDCM curated by our SCP intern Katy Moon


The second panel focused on film-making in Southern Africa. Jacqueline Maingard (Bristol) explored the idea of the ‘colonial imaginary’ in Donald Swanson’s films, considering the networks he operated in within Britain and eastern and southern Africa, and how they affected his depiction of race and colonial space. Emma Sandon (Birkbeck) focused on documentary films produced in South Africa between the 1920s and 1940s, exploring the role of African Film Productions in promoting trade with Britain. Sandon considered the various audiences for such documentary films, both in Britain but also in South Africa where they played an important role in promoting an English-speaking South African identity at a time of Afrikaner cultural revival.


In the final panel David Thackeray (Exeter) discussed the connections between imperial documentary film networks and the rise of internationalist development projects in the 1940s, focusing on the activities of John Grierson and Norman McLaren at UNESCO. Berny Sebe (Birmingham) offered comparisons between the depiction of French and British imperial heroes in film culture during the inter-war years, and Will Higbee (Exeter) explored ideas of imperial memory and the problematic nature of the colonial past in contemporary France through a study of Rachid Bouchareb’s Hors-la-loi (2010) and its popular reception.


Over the course of the day, a number of common themes emerged such as-


  • the importance of non-fiction educational/trade films and their relevant neglect in academic literature
  • the need to interrogate more thoroughly issues of circulation and viewership (in imperial networks) in terms of understanding the reach and appeal of individual documentary productions, but also the very varied practices of viewership (particularly in colonial contexts)
  • the contested nature of the ‘colonial imaginary’ in film-making, and the need to interrogate the role of the film-maker and industrial/ government sponsors in shaping film production
  • the value of using documentary film sources to understand ideas of ‘imperial modernity’ (eg. promoting modern techniques of industry, agriculture and education)
  • the value of these sources for understanding processes of decolonisation and nation forming


The workshop was accompanied by an exhibition curated by Katy Moon which will provide a basis for teaching with Exeter WP Residential and International Summer School classes and is currently on display at the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum.


David Thackeray

12 Digital Research Suggestions for Dissertations on the History of Modern Britain & the British Empire

Cross-posted from Imperial and Global Forum

David Thackeray, Marc Palen and Richard Toye
University of Exeter

As 3rd-year students scramble to finish their dissertations and as 2nd-year students begin formulating topics for their own, it’s worth noting the dramatic expansion in the availability of sources for the study of modern British and British imperial history in recent years.

Many of these sources are free to use. However, it is often hard to keep track of what materials are now available. What follows is a short guide (which is by no means comprehensive) but gives an introduction to some of the most important sources and may be of particular use to students planning dissertations, as well as other researchers. Please feel free to add your own suggestions in the ‘comments’ section.



  1. Mass Observation was a social investigation organisation set up in the 1930s that produced a range of social surveys about British life until its disbandment in the late 1940s. This website provides online access to a range of data held in the Mass Observation archive at the University of Sussex and is invaluable for social historians. Dr. Lucy Robinson has also produced the excellent Observing the 80s website, which holds material compiled following the modern revival of Mass Observation, as well as oral history recordings from the British Library.
  1. Digital newspapers – A range of British newspapers are available to access online, although many require a personal or institutional subscription. Collections are most comprehensive for the nineteenth century- the British Library Nineteenth Century Newspaper archive (subscription required) is an excellent source, and is but one of many newspaper databases included in the Gale NewsVault (others include the Economist Historical Archive, the Financial Times Historical Archive, and the London Times Digital Archive). However, if you are interested in imperial history many countries’ archives provide free access to a range of historical newspapers- the best examples being Trove (Australia) andPapersPast (New Zealand). The latter can be supplemented by the in-progress New Zealand Electronic Text Collection, curated by Victoria University. For more about using digital newspapers to study imperial history see here.
  1. BBC Archive – the BBC’s online archive is regularly updated and provides some excellent introductory material on issues such as Thatcher and the role of women in British politics; gay rights; Second Wave feminism; British elections; andapartheid. The anti-apartheid movement also has an excellent archive of digitised material.



  1. Imperial War Museum – the IWM holds a range of digital collections that are being regularly updated during the centenary commemorations of the First World War.
  1. Colonial Film archive – this website provides free access to a range of films from government documentaries to home movies produced within the British Empire/Commonwealth. The ‘colonial’ definition of the project means it is by no means fully comprehensive (so South Africa does not feature after it gained Dominion status in 1910). But the website still manages to provide access to a wealth of audio-visual material. For more discussion of issues surrounding the imperial film archive read here.



  1. British Political and Social history film archives – BFi Inviewand Screenonline provide invaluable access to a range of audiovisual sources for the social and political history of modern Britain; British Pathe offers access to the history of newsreels; and the University of Sheffield’s Party election broadcasts website features various PEBs produced between 1945 and 1964. And the Box of Broadcasts (bob) remains an underutilised visual resource.
  1. Gender history archives – particularly valuable are the Women’s Library records at the LSE (some of which have been digitised), and the British Library Sisterhood and After project, which provides an oral history of the women’s movement.



  1. Thatcher Foundation and Churchill Archive – the Thatcher Foundation is a free and very broad ranging collection of over 10,000 documents connected to Thatcher’s rise and her time in power. The Churchill Archive is similarly wide-ranging but needs to be accessed via a personal or institutional subscription.
  1. Government records and national library websites – some substantial archives focused on government and foreign relations have been digitised in recent years. In particular, see the British Cabinet Papers, 1915-1986; Foreign Relations of the United States; Canadian government documents online; the MacKenzie King diaries; Trove provides a gateway to a range of digitised sources connected to Australian history;The Journal of the House of Representatives (New Zealand);Tapuhi (which includes digital content from the National Library of New Zealand).
  1. British university online collections – LSE digital collections – provides access to a range of resources, these include records relating to the Fabian Society, and student activism, as well as posters connected to early twentieth century politics; the Bodleian Library provides access to theConservative Party poster collection online; Solo Oxford(Online Resources search) provides access to non-copyright books which have been digitised from the Bodleian Library’s collections; provides a similar service for other university libraries; the Cartoon Archive maintained by the University of Kent is also worth consulting.
  2. Your own special collections – if you are based at a UK institution, do not discount the value of your own university’s physical special collections for undertaking dissertation research. Online digital archive collections often feature only 1-10% of a physical archive’s holdings. This may be due to copyright reasons, the large costs of digitising material, or the physical conditions of archives. The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum at the University of Exeter, for example, has 70,000 physical items (for more about the resources available at the museum for historical research see this Youtube video).
  1. Blogs, websites and Twitter- can provide an excellent insight into what historians are finding in the archives, their latest research, and the opportunities that are available for postgraduate funding. Apart from this blog, we also recommend the Modern British Studies, Birmingham blog andtwitter; the Imperial and Global History Network based at the University of Exeter, and History of Parliament. In addition,Hugh Pemberton’s guide is worth reading for more information on research resources.

Film Archives and the Future of Imperial History

Archives and Digitisation 1: Film Archives and the Future of Imperial History

Thackeray 1

David Thackeray
History Department, University of Exeter
Follow on Twitter @d_thackeray


Last month I had the pleasure of participating in a joint workshop staged by the AHRC Care for the Future and Labex: Passes Dans le Present research clusters at the Royaumont Foundation near Paris. The two days showcased a range of projects assessing how study of the past can inform contemporary and future policy-making and cultural debates- from the use of colonial heroes in modern Africa, to how digitisation is reshaping understanding of museums, and the links between modern and historical anti-slavery movements.

My own focus was on the challenges facing film archives and how this affects the future of imperial history. For the historian of imperial trade networks – film provides a fascinating, and in many ways under-used resource. As the most popular form of entertainment for much of the twentieth century (there were over 30 million cinema attendances weekly in Britain in 1945), it was also widely seen as a harbinger of the ‘Americanization’ of global culture. Yet at the same time, Britain was at the forefront of the development of the non-fiction film, and sought to promote documentary film networks across the empire and globally. Many of the film-makers who made films for bodies such as the Empire Marketing Board such as Basil Wright, Norman McLean and Paul Rotha went on to play an important role in the early publicity activities of UN agencies including UNESCO and the FAO.

At the same time, film is an (often fragile) material resource. While some historic film reels have been digitised through initiatives such as the AHRC Colonial Film project they represent only a fraction of many film archive holdings (in some cases around 1% of the physical collections). Moreover, digital curation throws up its own challenges: how best to edit and present material to the public, particularly when it includes material which wasn’t designed for a mass audience such as the home movies shot by John Birch, director of Unilever in Sierra Leone in the 1940s and 1950s. And yet, ideas such as the Youtube channel provide significant opportunities for museums to offer new perspectives on their collections. For example, the Royal Museum of Central Africa, which is currently undergoing an extensive renovation, has developed a series of Youtube videos on the museum’s work, as part of a wider effort to create a ‘museum without walls’. These efforts are particularly important to rebranding the museum, which is physically constrained by the imperial triumphalism (and dubious racial imagery) of the original construction of the building.


Thackeray 2    Thackeray 3


As part of my AHRC fellowship, I am organising a workshop at the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum in Exeter on 8 June to bring together academics and archivists to discuss some of the challenges and opportunities confronting the British Empire/ Commonwealth film archive. The Tate and Lyle ‘World in a Cube’ project provides one example of how businesses are seeking new ways to present their film archives to a wider public. As one of the world’s leading sugar companies Tate and Lyle produced many films in Britain, the Carribean, and West Africa. Few of these films are currently digitised and the company has undertaken a number of initiatives to consider how best to present these films in the future, including employee workshops and a creative media competition where people were encouraged to produce edits of the films. Bristol Museums and Galleries is facing similar issues in how to present the imperial film archive in the future. Bristol inherited the collections of the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum when it closed in 2009, which includes 2000 reels of film from the Royal Commonwealth Society. There will certainly be much to discuss!

Imperial History at the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum


Imperial history and documentary culture at the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, Exeter

 By Dr.David Thackeray and Students at the International Summer School 2014


Cross Posted from Bill Douglas Cinema Museum


In July 2014 the University of Exeter ran its second annual summer school connected to Imperial and Global History: Britain and the making of the modern world with students from Canada, China, India, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the USA. In this blog post students reflect on their experience working with Dr. David Thackeray from the History Department to explore archives connected to imperial history and documentary culture from the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum at the University of Exeter. The museum is home to one of the largest collections of material on the moving image in Britain, with a collection of over 75,000 items. The class was split into three groups and given a variety of film and visual culture sources to explore, then asked to record their reactions to those they found of most interest.

One group chose to discuss ‘The All Red Route Round the World’ (EXE BD 36745), an accompaniment to a series of lantern slide lectures produced in the early twentieth century depicting a variety of views across the British Empire. They note that it was a long-standing practice for British imperial territory belonging to be marked on a map in red. ‘This small pamphlet focuses on the idea that the world could be traversed without ever leaving the Empire. The author seems to brag about the fact that the sun never sets on British-controlled territory. Upon examination of the materials, we came to the conclusion that the lectures were primarily produced for entertainment purposes. The lantern slides boast about the scale of the Empire and introduce readers to the various cultures and peoples encompassed in British territory. These lectures may also serve to shock the public with their depictions of tribal, naked and supposedly less ‘civilised’ peoples’ living under the British flag’.

The documentary film of the ‘Cape to Cairo’ trans-Africa exhibition of 1924 provided the focus for the second group, who explored the various means by which the film was publicised including a book (EXE BD 11598) and cinema souvenir pamphlet (EXE BD 18477). Xiaohan Wang notes how such documentaries often focused on the exoticism of African life and its distance from the culture of the metropole and the British traveller. ‘Pictures in the booklet document indigenous Africans’ daily life, contrasting it with that of the travellers’ who commonly came from elite backgrounds. The well-dressed Europeans are commonly placed in the centre of the accompanying pictures surrounded by Africans living in supposedly primitive conditions’.



Our final sources for discussion are The Mystic Orient (EXE BD 00025), a booklet produced to promote a documentary produced by the anthropologist Dr. George Dorsey depicting his explorations in Japan, China, India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka), a journey he claims reached “parts of the world where white men have seldom, if ever, visited”, and Through Romantic India (EXE BD 18476) a booklet which accompanied a documentary film and lecture from 1922 by renowned American Journalist Lowell Thomas. The students discussed the problems of whether we can view these sources as indicators of an Orientalist mindset. This approach seems to be more apparent in the latter booklet which ‘clearly deals with cultural and racial differences from a hierarchical perspective. Indian culture is depicted as brutal and backwards, but also romantic, as opposed to ‘civilised’ Britain’. The booklet includes a picture of two Indian men sitting on a needle bed, and has the following jaunty description: ‘Holy men ready or a siesta on their beds of sharp iron spikes’.



The class provided students with an opportunity to explore the insights that documentary film culture can provide into Britons’ historical interaction with Empire. While their conclusions give a rather sobering insight into aspects of imperial culture which bring to mind the old adage- ‘it’s a good thing the sun never set on the empire- because the Brits clearly can’t be trusted at night’- students appreciated what for many of them was their first opportunity to work in an archive.

The museum has a rich collection of material on the British Empire, as optical entertainment was frequently used as a propaganda source and to bring the wider world to the British public. It is used frequently for teaching in History and English at the University.

Contributors: Angela Banks, Kelly Cave, Jessica Deters, Caroline Menu, Daniel Scherer, Xiaohan Wang, Henrik Zimmermann