Imperial Institute Photographs

  • This material is held at
  • Reference
      GB 29 EUL MS 61
  • Dates of Creation
  • Name of Creator
  • Language of Material
  • Physical Description
      Approximately three thousand glass plate photographs, plus reference prints of some parts of the collection.

Scope and Content

This collection of photographs was primarily used for teaching purposes by the staff of the Imperial Institute. They cover an extensive range of subjects and activities from all parts of the Empire, with an emphasis on the more exotic and undeveloped regions, especially India and Africa. A number of photographs feature scenes of everyday life, but many more relate specifically to work, industry and the indigenous exploitation of regional resources. Not all of the photographs in the original collection Imperial Institute have survived.

Administrative / Biographical History

The Imperial Institute was founded in 1887 'as a monument to the emerging imperial sentiment'. It acted partly as an educational instrument, with extensive gallery spaces promoting the Commonwealth, but was also an important research base for the Empire, exploring the potential for industrial commercial operations in the Dominions and Colonies. The Institute was sited in a building in South Kensington, London, and was purpose-designed by Thomas Colcutt (1840-1924) in a similar style to the other major museums of the area. One wing of the Institute was sold to London University in 1899. The administration of the Institute changed frequently throughout its history, coming under the remit of the Board of Trade in 1903 (following the 1902 Imperial Institute (Transfer) Act), the Department of Overseas Trade in 1925 and the Ministry of Education in 1949.

The building of the Institute was destroyed between 1957 and 1965, after the closure of the Institute in the mid 1950s. The rear galleries were demolished in 1957, the east galleries in 1962 and the west wing in 1965. The only remaining part of the original structure is the Colcutt Tower (now the Queen's Tower), which was saved from demolition and became free-standing in 1968. This now forms part of the site of Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine, which was expanded on a large scale during the 1950s. Following the Commonwealth Institute Act in 1958, the Commonwealth Institute was established to continue the work of the Imperial Institute, with the new building opened on a new site on Kensington High Street in November 1962. Since the closure of the exhibition galleries in the late 1990s, many of the Institute's artefacts have been transferred to the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum, Bristol.


By country, in order of name before independence (where listed). Originally each plate was housed within a paper identification envelope; these were not kept on accessioning the collection, although a card index of the information included was retained.

Access Information

Usual EUL conditions apply.

Other Finding Aids

A card index exists to part of the collection. A rough guide appears in the back of the pamphlet Images of Empire: the early history of the Imperial Institute 1887-1925, by William Golant (asst. lecturer in history 1964-1967, lecturer in history 1967-1987). Golant does not appear to have had access to the entire collection when this list was made, although additional unlisted and unnumbered photographs were also held at another site of the Library. At least half the collection is entirely inaccessible due to the lack of finding aids.

Alternative Form Available

The University Library owns a set of reference prints for about eighty of the plates, which was created for an exhibition mounted by the Audio-Visual Unit in collaboration with Golant in the 1980s.

Physical Characteristics and/or Technical Requirements

Glass plate negatives (some broken).

Archivist's Note

Description compiled by Ian Mortimer, Archivist, 30 May 2001, and revised by Charlotte Berry, Archivist, 14 Fen 2005 and 6 May 2005. Re-encoded into EAD, 6 June 2005.

Conditions Governing Use

Reproduction is not normally permitted because of the fragile condition of the photographs.

Custodial History

The photographic archive of the Imperial Institute was partly burnt on the closure of the building. An employee of the Institute's library apparently rescued a great many photographs as they were being thrown out, including those now held at Exeter University Library. The employee gave the collection to the University Library in 1975, via Professor Walter E. Minchinton of the Department of Economic History (1964-1986).

Related Material

Other records relating to the Imperial Institute are held at The National Archives (PRO 30/76 and ED 26) and at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew Library and Archive.


Eleven of the photographs have been reproduced in William Golant's Images of Empire: the early history of the Imperial Institute 1887-1925 (Exeter University Press, 1984). This publication is partly based on the photograph collection.

Geographical Names