The opening of the Commonwealth Institute in London in 1962 was a striking expression
of confidence in the emergence of a united and diverse Commonwealth. For its director
Kenneth Bradley, the ambition was to create a building that would be “a worthy expression of the
Commonwealth of today and tomorrow”.1
For Bradley, the Institute’s hyperbolic paraboloid roof
and its displays inside were positive representations of the political and social ideals which marked
the emergence of the new Commonwealth. However, despite the such a forward-looking ethos,
the building was also a legacy of Britain’s imperial past; many of the exhibits inside were developed
by the Commonwealth Institute’s predecessor, the Imperial Institute, where they had long supplied
material for the domestic imagination of the British Empire.
This thesis is the first diachronic study of the Imperial Institute and the Commonwealth
Institute’s exhibition galleries, starting with their establishment in 1887 and ending with their closure
in 1997. If the display of Empire depended on the encyclopaedic assemblage of natural resources,
then the presentation of the Commonwealth depended on the legibility of distinct national cultures
assembled within an equitable framework. It analyses the manner in which such imaginative
projections shade from one to the other in order to understand how the transition from Empire
to Commonwealth was articulated to the British public. Drawing on a interdisciplinary framework
including museum studies and critical postcolonial theory, this design-historical study locates the
Institute’s exhibition galleries as significant spaces through which ideas about imperial trade, national
identity and belonging were communicated during processes of imperial rule and decolonisation.
Paying close attention to the methods by which the concepts of Empire and Commonwealth
are ‘imagined’ reveals important clues about how specific techniques of display, not just the things
shown, can convey powerful messages. This thesis shows how the Institute specialised in immersive
display technologies which engaged visitors through the senses, and argues that such techniques
reinforced the sustenance of an imperial political economy. Moreover, it demonstrates how such
displays could, nonetheless, be destabilised by the political negotiations that characterised the
processes of decolonisation. In doing so, this thesis locates the ambiguities of imperial discourse
and investigates how colonial stereotypes continue to resonate long after the end of Empire.
As representations of both Empire and Commonwealth, the Institute’s exhibition galleries were
simultaneously powerful and unsteady projections of British influence.
|Date of Award