The museum opened in 2002 in Bristol's historic old railway station, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. It is the world's earliest surviving railway terminus, which was completed in 1840 and includes the passenger shed and the adjoining former engine and carriage shed. It is over 220 ft long (67 m) with timber and iron roof spans of 72 ft (22 m), this Grade I listed building has been nominated as a World Heritage Site.
The museum had a flourishing publications department, producing books on aspects of colonial life such as the history of the Northern Rhodesia Police, and a register of titles of the regiments of the Honourable East India Company and East Indian Armies. The museum also held the collection of artifacts of the Commonwealth Institute; extensive still photograph, paper, film and oral history archives, and a costume collection.
The museum was also the home of the New World Tapestry.
On 23 November 2007 the museum announced it would be moving its core operations to London in 2008. However, after closing in 2008 the move did not take place as planned and it has been announced that the planned move to London will not be completed until 2012 or later. The displays and archives are not available to the public during this period.
But... On 28 March 2012, the Museum announced that its planned move to London had been cancelled and that it would instead gift its collection to the City of Bristol to display at the Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery at a future date. The Old Station which had previously housed the museum was also gifted to the city, and may be used for future Network Rail services to London.