Tuesday, 9 July 2013

The Commonwealth Institute

Ah, The Commonwealth Institute in Kensington, the trendy, liberal cousin of the British Museum that eventually came a cropper. Whereas the British Museum is full of artefacts stolen from the natives, The Institute showcased items donated by our extended international family, not least the 25 tonnes of South African copper that comprise the distinctive ‘hyperbolic parabaloid’ roof.

Built as a showcase for trade between Commonwealth partners, it was designed by Sir Robert Matthew, who had worked as a London City Council architect from 1946 to 1953 and played a massive part in the Festival of Britain, as well as co-designing the Royal Festival Hall. Started in 1960, it was opened by The Queen in November, 1962. It comprised an administrative wing (it was a real Institute, not just a pretend one), and a large diamond shaped exhibition space with an art gallery and cinema attached, all set in ornamental gardens with walkways and waterways. It’s a lovely building, very 1962.

The exhibition itself was designed by James Gardner, who had created the exhibition inside The Dome of Discovery at the Festival of Britain, which looked at life on our small planet, and the proportionally enormous part Britain had played to date (sections included The Earth, Outer Space, Sky, Polar, Sea and The Land). The Commonwealth Institute’s exhibition was similarly comprehensive, with stuff from all the formerly pink bits on the map, all willingly given in the spirit of the new age of equality of peoples and a spirit of co-operation.

In 2000, the ownership of The Institute shifted from the Foreign Office to a Trust, the architectural equivalent of a football manager receiving a vote of confidence from the Chairman. It closed two years later and has remained closed ever since. Here it is in its rather sad, vacated state.

In 1969, the ITV kids show ‘The Tyrant King’ (which was basically a tourists guide to London and the suburbs), filmed several key scenes at The Institute, and the following screenshots give a flavour as to what it looked like with stuff in it. I love the central hub, although it is very frustrating that everyone in the programme who passes the centre looks down, and I have no idea what they are looking at.

The Hub

Not part of the permanent exhibition

The late Phillip Madoc checks out some ethnic art 

Some sort of African exhibit

Another sort of African exhibit

How much did Modernists love stair cases?
The building is due to reopen in 2014 as the new home of the Design Museum, although the interior has, apparently, been significantly remodelled. I wonder if there will be a place for a model of a Hong Kong junk, or a set of African drums? I hope so, but I very much doubt it (the majority of the exhibits were returned to their places of origin).

Speaking of Design, here’s the flag of the Commonwealth, a classic of simplicity and good taste, although I'm not sure it’s a coincidence that the beneficent golden glow encircling the earth has a gap where Russia and China are.    


  1. Regarding the mysteries of the central hub:

    I'm told that the Commonwealth Institute's curate stole Elizabethan mathematician, astrologer and magician John Dee's scrying mirror from the British Museum, and placed it within the hub. Visitors were unable to resist peering into the depths of this mystic artifact, and were rewarded with visions of which Radio One DJ's they should keep away from.

  2. Almost entirely correct, except that it was SIMON Dee's scrying mirror.