The empty museum: the last of the Commonwealth Institute

Why do we love empty spaces? Why is it exciting to stand in a deserted building and feel the solitude, especially if the place was once full of people going about their daily lives, or enjoying an excursion? This feeling is there in any empty location but especially in large spaces. There is fading grandeur, melancholy decay, a reminder that even in the inanimate world things come to an end.

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It’s hard to say from the picture where this sad space was or what purpose it served. It could be any condemned building, except for the extrovert ceiling tiles which tell you that this once an ambitious place.

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The ceilings are often the first parts to go in an abandoned building. Tiles start falling, water gets in and nature starts to stake a claim on what is left.This room was destined for destruction but other parts of the empty museum are going to survive.

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I’m not completely sure if this long room is one of them.

It still commands a pleasant view of the park.

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This room on the other hand is definitely here to stay.

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The empty museum is still a unique place.

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In fact, stripped of its contents you can concentrate on this enormous room’s most striking feature, the ceiling.

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And above all the shape. The museum is the direct descendant of the interiors we looked at a few weeks ago in Halls of Empire. Although the Commonwealth Institute shared some of the uncertain purpose of its Imperial predecessor you can see that the sixty or so years which separate the two have not dimmed the desire to impress.

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Even after being empty for many years the central space retains the optimism of the early 1960s.

Let’s walk downwards.

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We can take a closer look at that slanting supporting pillar.

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There are wires everywhere in here like the rigging of a yacht. And here is the centre of the space, now marked simply with an eight pointed star.

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We have to take one last descent to the ground floor.

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The stained glass window represents different countries of the Commonwealth.

We can go now. The main building of the Commonwealth Institute will be reborn as the new Design Museum so the empty museum will be filled again. But there are some stairs that will never be walked down again.

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And some views which are gone for good.

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These pictures were deposited in the Library by Montagu Evans Chartered Surveyors . As part of their brief they created a record of the Institute as it was. The photographs are by Ben Murphy. He has done a remarkable job both in terms of creating that visual record but also artistically in catching the look of the interior. I know some of you will never get to the Library for a visit but if you’re interested in the Commonwealth Institute this set of images is a valuable part of its history.

Mr Murphy’s website has more of his work:

17 responses to “The empty museum: the last of the Commonwealth Institute

  • Michael Gall

    Beautifully written piece Mr Walker

    • David Davenport

      Great to see that this iconic building will become home to New Design Museum in 2016. Their website has many interesting pictures of the restoration. I look forward to walking around inside the building again one day.

  • Ray Frensham

    These photos fill me with such wistful sadness…. the many hours I have spent as a child and teenager walking these galleries, these stairs, those exhibitions…… at least the place will not be knocked down (as was feared for a good number of years)……. a place I loved and a place that started me off on my writing career (I won the Royal Commonwealth Society essay prize 1969).

  • b.lake

    sorry this has made me cry such a beautiful building and education centre that I had the privelige of working in filled with such beautiful memories. seeing children educated for free although they did start charging small amounts for workshops and fesitvals.

  • Linda Johnson

    I too remember many visits to the Commonwealth Institute as a child-the first not long after it opened. We were amazed by the modern design and the lovely pictures and maps of the commonwealth countries brightly displayed. My favourite part was looking down at an illuminated map of New Zealand. I bought several maps including a large one of Australia and one of the world which started my interest in geography and taught me such a lot about places in the World.

  • D Davenport

    Sometime in the early 1960s a Routemaster bus left Roman Road Junior Mixed and Infants School, East Ham, filled with excited school children heading for the Commonwealth Institute in London. I have a memory of wonderful displays of all the various commonwealth countries that is still with me as I enter my 60th year. Sadly no pocket cameras in those days for us poor prefab kids so the only images I have are in my mind and the memory of an exciting day out with a packed lunch. I am glad to read that such a wonderful building will not be lost.
    Perhaps a developing and evolving commonwealth would have been a better future than the European debacle we are saddled with today.

  • Neil Mossey

    Love this article – thanks for the photos — was trying to find out what happened to all the contents. I am of an age to remember the Zimbabwe tractor display, and the illuminated New Zealand Cow.

  • Dr Robert Smith

    I am researching the stained glass work of artist Keith New. The colour photograph in this article is the first I have seen of his panels in situ at what was the Commonwealth Institute. I wonder whether it is possible to get a good quality copy of this photograph. I do hope you can help.

  • Maxine Allen

    I am also researching Keith New’s work! What a coincidence. Can I also ask for a copy of the picture and any others you may have taken of the glass. I will of course credit you.

  • Stephen Spark

    These pictures made me feel desperately sad. I have very fond memories of the CWI and hate to see the spaces I remember so well in such a state of neglect. The building embodied the style and optimism of the early 60s. and always gave me a thrill, from the first approach past the clattering flagpoles along that magical path over the glassy water and in to the dramatic main hall with its daring roof swooping above. No matter how many times I visited, I always found something fascinating among the admittedly dusty and sometimes crumbling exhibits. It was the scene of some very happy times with my young daughter, who loved the place. And it was in here that I first realised that classical music could be played steelpan with astonishing finesse

    So it’s really exciting to know that soon we’ll be able to enjoy the building once again – the Design Museum is such an appropriate occupant. I can’t wait to get back in there.

  • Zara

    I too loved visiting the Commonwealth Institute (in the late 60s). It was magical, walking from country to country. Being transported from West London to “Malaya! Land of rubber!”

    Does anyone remember looking down a hole to see a model of the world on the floor below?

  • Susan Tebby

    Does anyone remember a tall blue steel sculpture/construction by Kenneth Martin outside the main entrance in the late 1970s? Where might there be any records please?

  • Colin

    Quite moving, those still-images by Ben Murphy and I concur with Mr Spark’s comments above. I was a child of Kensington in the 60’s living near to the Commonwealth Institute, and we both appeared within a year of each other. That and Holland Park were daily places and of course mum took me in occasionally. Like the other comments I marvelled at the exhibits when little – and now live away actually in the ‘commonwealth’. Still a great building and I am very glad it was saved and became the design museum albeit with criticism of what was done and how it turned out. The setting is a loss of course – I enjoyed that vista from the main road for years and miss the flag poles. I watched it being worked on and visited soon after it opened. Not quite what it was, but at least the old friend is still there for many years.

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