Website Review

The Royal Commonwealth Society Photograph Project

Hosted by the Cambridge University Library, the current version of The RCS Photograph Project represents the initial steps of an ambitious project to scan, catalogue, and post the nearly 70,000 images in the Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS) library on the internet. The RCS, formerly the Royal Colonial Institute and later the Royal Empire Society, was originally a private association dedicated to promoting imperial interests in the United Kingdom, its overseas possessions and former colonies.

In its current incarnation the RCS is an educational charity working to promote understanding among the peoples of the modern Commonwealth. The RCS Photograph Project features images of life in the former British Empire. The photographs in the main collection date from the 1850s to the 1980s, but most of the online postings were taken between the 1890s and the Second World War.

While one of the project's stated aims is to create a searchable online database of photographs from the collection, at present the website has no search function. Instead, the images are accessible through a series of thematic galleries labeled

Each of these galleries is further divided geographically into Europe, the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Oceania. Browsing these, particularly the daily life listings, produces numerous photographs of children, adolescents, and families from every corner of the British Empire.

At present, The RCS Photograph Project's holdings are much smaller than the Images of Empire collection, but the Cambridge images are scanned at a much higher resolution and are not watermarked. Each is also helpfully annotated with information on the photographer, an estimate of when it was taken, a descriptive caption, and its catalogue number in the Cambridge University Library.

The RCS Photograph Project's greatest virtue is its truly global scope. Collectively, its images allow for the cross-cultural study of childhood at the turn of the 20th century. Teachers can use classroom scenes of physical education at a girls school in Quebec, a Jamaican Catholic elementary school, a Hebrew school on Gibraltar, metal working in Lahore, agricultural training at an elite boys school in Uganda, an Australian bush school, and sewing instruction in Hong Kong to explore the various manifestations of education in the empire. Such an assignment might ask a student to use the images to draw conclusions about the resources various colonies devoted to educating subject populations, the nature of the curriculum in each education system, and the composition of the student body in terms race, class, and gender.

Photographs of children engaged in various forms of labor suggest an interesting counter-point to an education-focused lesson plan. Students might draw further conclusions about the nature and availability of formal education in the empire by comparing and contrasting the school images with photographs of Nigerian girls spinning yarn, Ugandan boys and girls washing clothes, a Malay boy pounding rice, Samoan boys extracting coconut fiber, and English boys from Liverpool preparing to emigrate to Canada. Taken as a whole, these pictures illustrate strikingly the changing nature of childhood and schooling in the subject societies of the British Empire.

How to Cite This Source

Tim Parsons, "The Royal Commonwealth Society Photograph Project," in Children and Youth in History, Item #255, http://chnm.gmu.edu/cyh/website-reviews/255 (accessed April 21, 2014).

Hosted by the Cambridge University Library, the current version of The RCS Photograph Project represents the initial steps of an ambitious project to scan, catalogue, and post the nearly 70,000 images in the Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS) library on the internet.