Commonwealth InstituteLooking at the creation of the Imperial Institute,its development, why its building was demolished and how it transferred into the Commonwealth Institute.

[This is an extract from an article in the current edition of The Journal: The Commonwealth Institute of International Affairs.]

The front on Kensington High Street was covered with a forest of the flags of the members of the Commonwealth. These were not small but the size similar to those erected for state occasions. In other words the new Institute was a clear statement that the United Kingdom was consigning its imperial past to history and wanted to embrace the new Commonwealth.

The new Institute received donations of materials including high quality copper from Zambia and timber for the galleries from Canada but it also suffered from post war shortages. Most of the roof drained into the centre and the poor drainage caused it to leak, damaging the exhibitions, floors and the ceiling. The panes of blue glass of the curtain wall had a tendency to crack in very hot or cold weather and the blue paint tended to peel off the glass. This gave the impression of a neglected building and encouraged vandalism. As the years went on, a shortage of money for repairs and maintenance meant the interior appeared dowdy, unkempt and old fashioned. As the result, visitors declined from 550,000 in 1963 to 200,000 in 1992. The Annual Reports give statistics on visitor numbers. However these should be treated with care since they were collected manually using a hand held clicker at the gallery entrance but there were two other entrances. The most reliable are the school children as they had to book in advance giving numbers. The decline was steep in the first seven years and thereafter it was a gentle decline. The school visitor numbers increased slightly in the 1960s and thereafter hovered around 100,000 although they too began to decline somewhat in 1990.The Institute no longer benefited from the foot fall of other museums which previously surrounded the Imperial Institute. Anyone wanting to visit the galleries now would have to make a special journey. In the 1980s there was a very successful series of culture and educational focuses on regions of the Commonwealth which attracted extra visitors. ‘The Human Story’ was particularly successful using Leakey material from Kenya and toured the world.

The Institute had a very active outreach programme covering the whole of England and Wales. It is difficult to find reliable numbers of the size of this programme but the 1989/90 Annual Report records 644,949 ‘visitors’ off-site. The Scottish Institute and the Bradford Centre also contributed to widening the Institute’s reach.

Although the Institute was a wonderful facility, its design was much criticised and it would be many years before it was recognised as a masterpiece of modern architecture. As recently as February 1994 in a diary piece in the Daily Telegraph the following appeared: ‘I do not know who is responsible for this hideous and half-witted construction in Sixties ‘modern’ style with its ugly concrete flying buttresses and kindergarten interior displays. Whatever the reality of the Commonwealth as it has evolved, this building is an insult to 200 years of British and world history’.

In 1985 responsibility for the Institute changed again this time from the Department of Education to the Colonial Office and then to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). This meant it lost the direct link to the education and museum sectors which were directly relevant to its work. The FCO naturally did not have experience in these fields, its remit then covered international relations and development aid. That year there was a policy review, followed by a management review. These were critical of the Institute and its programmes which resulted in a reduction of 6.98% of its grant leading to a reduction of staff from 107 to 96. The FCO appointed Richard Fyjis-Walker who had recently retired after a distinguished career in the Diplomatic Service as the new Chairman at the beginning of 1988. The following year it appointed David Thompson who had a long and successful career in the private sector as Vice Chairman.

It was clear that the Institute could not continue to limp along with its current grant. It needed to reduce its dependence on its government grant and seek ways of generating and diversifying its revenue. At the same time it needed an injection of capital to sort out the buildings and the permanent displays. At the end of 1987 under the heading ‘Commonwealth Place’ it launched a plan to revitalise the Institution and to seek a partner with a property developer to develop its site. The purpose was ‘to enable the Institute to modernise its main galleries to provide a dynamic technologically sophisticated and relevant experience for a great increased number of visitors and increase the overall attractiveness of the site. The developer will be granted a sub-lease of the site for a term of up to 150 years with the Institute receiving a proportion of the rack rents for the commercial elements of the scheme plus a substantial premium’. This would necessitate moving the Institute temporally to an unidentified location. The successful bidder was Miller Developments based in Edinburgh. However the plan collapsed at the end of 1991 partly because of continued depressed market conditions especially in the office renting sector in London and in the face of changing planning conditions as a consequence of the Institute’s listing grade 2*in October 1988.

Stephen Cox was the Director General of the Commonwealth Institute from 1991–1997.