The BECM Oral History Archive was set up by Elizabeth Friend and Douglas Paling in 1992, straight after the museum's inception and some ten years before it opened to the public. At that point the museum had no plans to become a collecting institution, and the purpose of the oral history interviews was to add context to loan items displayed in the galleries and preserve the memories of the last generation to live and work in the British Empire.
The interviews were carried out by volunteers, the majority of whom had a colonial service background themselves and extensively used their networks to find people with interesting stories to tell. Many of these in turn recommended their friends and contacts. The resulting collection is diverse in terms of geographical scope and in the professional backgrounds of the interviewees, but the majority were White British people who experienced the empire from the perspective of colonial privilege.
After Mary Ingoldby became the museum's first professional Oral History Co-ordinator in 1998, efforts were made to diversify the collection and improve on the estimated 20% of interviews given by indigenous people who had lived under British rule. A number of special collections on particular themes or countries were added to the main interview series, including Commonwealth Soldiers, Hong Kong and South Africa. Some of these were commissioned by the museum itself and others were donated by researchers who had recorded them in the course of project work.
The close connections made between the museum and many of the interviewees were the catalyst behind BECM's decision to start acquiring its own collections. Large numbers of those interviewed, nearing the end of their lives, donated photos, objects and films. The extra context which the interviews give to images and other items which otherwise have limited provenance recorded is one of the key strengths of the collection.
In November 1999 BECM published "Voices and Echoes", a catalogue of the first 800 interviews together with synopses. They carried on adding to the collection until 2010, shortly before the museum's closure.
The interviews were given by colonial administrators, soldiers, medics, farmers, missionaries and many others. Some had experienced the empire only as children; others towards the end of their careers. A large number of the interviewees were women. In terms of subject matter, some are chiefly concerned with everyday domestic life in the colonies whereas others provide eyewitness accounts from some of the 20th century's most defining moments, such as Indian Partition. Many of the stories found within these recordings are almost certainly not told anywhere else.
The digitisation and cataloguing of this collection was generously funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund as part of the British Library's Unlocking Our Sound Heritage programme.