Aerial photographs that record vast swathes of the Commonwealth from the 1940sÂ onwards have been saved for posterity by RCAHMS and are now being readied for publicÂ access online. The treasure trove of 1.5 million photographs, maps and other materials, rescuedÂ from a defunct museum in Bristol, effectively comprise a â€˜Doomsday bookâ€™ of manyÂ countries in the Commonwealth.
Discovered by a team from the National Collection of Aerial Photography (NCAP) atÂ RCAHMS, when the Bristol museumâ€™s collections were being dispersed and disposed ofÂ in 2012, the photographs were originally taken for the Directorate of OverseasÂ Surveys (DOS).
DOS was founded in post-war Britain to map the Colonial Empire, and subsequently theÂ Commonwealth, ultimately surveying 55 countries around the world. The surveysÂ continued until the 1990s. DOS even achieved movie fame when it was referenced as the source of maps used toÂ locate the lair of Scaramanga, the villain in the James Bond film and novel, The ManÂ with the Golden Gun.
Over the course of its history more than 2,000 people worked for the organisation.Â Hundreds worked at the DOS Headquarters in the south-west London suburb ofÂ Tolworth, in a labyrinth of Nissen huts so vast that it boasted a corridor almost aÂ quarter-of-a-mile long. Hundreds more, including many demobbed ex-servicemen,Â pilots, surveyors and other specialists, worked across the Commonwealth.
The NCAP team found the vast archive in disarray and spent six weeks camping out inÂ the old museum building as they sorted through boxes and determined what to keep. Now safely housed in Edinburgh as part of the National Collection of Aerial Photography which is hosted by RCAHMS, the DOS photographs provide a record of the changing urban and rural landscape of vast swathes of the Commonwealth.
As yet unseen and unused, the collection is particularly strong in its coverage ofÂ the Caribbean, the islands of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, South EastÂ Asia and large parts of the continent of Africa. Every country was photographed in its entirety, creating a unique and extraordinary record of Commonwealth nations. For example, Montserrat, the tiny island in the West Indies known as the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean, was frequently photographed over 40 years up-to and after the 1995 volcanic eruption which destroyed its capital city and forced two thirds of the islandâ€™s inhabitants to flee. Conurbations like Nairobi and Hong Kong that have gone through rapid and profound urbanisation, were regularly photographed over a 40 year period
The collection is now being painstakingly digitised and catalogued â€“ country by country – so that in due course, it can be accessed by people worldwide via the web.
The collection is believed to offer a wide range of other uses, beyond itsÂ historical interest and significance. For example, because the photographs cover 40Â years of human impact on the landscape, when they are matched with modern satelliteÂ images, an unrivalled record of the impact of climate change on the planet emerges.
Apart from climate change analysis, the aerial survey record offers a myriad ofÂ other potential uses including providing proof of indigenous land rights andÂ international boundary disputes.
Speaking about the DOS collection and the rescue mission, Allan Williams, Curator ofÂ the National Collection of Aerial Photography at RCAHMS, said â€œI am immensely proudÂ of the NCAP team and their work which has saved this internationally significantÂ archive and we consider ourselves very privileged to be the custodians of it.
â€œThe collection has come to RCAHMS in part due to our persistence in saving it, onceÂ we heard it had just been abandoned in a now-closed museum, and in part due to ourÂ expertise in preserving and cataloguing aerial photo archives and using technologyÂ to make these publicly accessible.
â€œPre-Google Earth, these aerial images alongside the maps and ground photographs,Â capture an almost perfect time capsule of the history of the landscape across theÂ Commonwealth, revealing incredible examples and evidence of the impact of mankind onÂ the Earth.
â€œWithout doubt, weâ€™ll make some amazing discoveries as we work our way through theÂ collection. Weâ€™re also very fortunate that many of the surveyors and others whoÂ worked for DOS are still alive and so can share their first-hand accounts.â€
To celebrate the acquisition of the Collection, RCAHMS have commissioned a short film thatâ€™s based on DOS photography of Kenya. Sightlines (16 mins) by Genevieve Bicknell, is part of the Glasgow 2014 Cultural Programme and produced in partnership with the Scottish Documentary Institute.
Sightlines explores colonialism and its consequences, as they are being played outÂ today, in a hillside village in Kenya. The villagers are battling against a vastÂ sisal plantation, which is occupying land given away by the colonial administration,Â land which the villagers believe to be their own.
Genevieve said â€œIt was a great surprise for me to discoverÂ how the aerial photographs are being used now in Kenya. We knew before we started on
the film that the photographs could show us how colonialism had shaped the land inÂ Kenya, but what was a complete surprise was to discover they are now being used forÂ a very different purpose, namely to reclaim the land that local communities believeÂ was taken from them during colonial rule. This is not something that I think theÂ British surveyors who worked with the photographs could have predicted, but it givesÂ us a whole new perspective on their work and its legacy.â€
It premiered at the Edinburgh International Film Festival on 19.06.2014 and will beÂ screenedÂ atÂ the Empire Cafe in Glasgow (24 July â€“ 1 August) and at The LighthouseÂ in Glasgow (7 August â€“ 14 September).