Imagining Empire: The Design and Display Strategies of the Imperial Institute and the Commonwealth Institute, 1887-1997

  • Thomas Richard Godbould Wilson

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


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 Award2016
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Brighton

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