What is the Commonwealth Institute?


Now that the new version of the Design Museum has now opened in the former Commonwealth Institute building it seemed like a good time to look again at the old place. I’ve written about it as an empty vessel and a near forgotten building but not really as a going concern.


So,  according to this explanatory pamphlet: “What is the Commonwealth Institute? Put simply it is a centre for information about the Commonwealth; a supermarket of resources and activities……The Commonwealth Institute exists to promote a better understanding of the Commonwealth and its people in Britain.”

Or was it a place for children to race around on school trips or during the holidays?


I never went there myself but I know that a generation of London school children frequently did so I asked one of them, my wife, what she remembered and this odd object on the central platform was one of them.


She recalls some kind of globe in there, but I’m happy to get further information. Most of this week’s images come from Commonwealth Institute publications from 1964, 1965 and 1973. My wife would of course have been too young to have been there in the early years.

She also remembers this sort of time honoured activity, still happening in museums today.


The institute shop, featuring a brownie. At this point my wife gave me a detailed account of the changes in uniform she remembered. This will strike a chord with some of you.


The art gallery has a distinctly 1970s look in this picture.


And a 60s look here:


The exhibition: “Commonwealth Art Today”.

Many people also remember the entrance hall, with its stained glass.


And some of the exhibits.


This one was recalled by more than one person.


The lion was described as “a bit mangy”, but he had his fans.


Diplomats were also a significant category of visitor.


“Well, that’s our bit, now shall we go to the shop?”

The Institute also had a library, in the now demolished administrative wing.


And this place, the Resources Production Unit, which used all sorts of new-fangled equipment.


Not to mention the restaurant with its view of the park, which some people I’ve spoken to remember fondly.


Another feature now gone, much recalled by many was the walkway to the entrance. (My wife remembers it as “a bridge” which is how it would have seemed to the groups of children passing over it.)


You can find some other views of it in my previous posts.

As we started with a postcard, let’s finish with an artist’s impression of the new building as it would look in 1962, the start of an new era.


And let’s wish the Design Museum success in its new home.


The Commonwealth Institute was one of those buildings I have photographed myself on many occasions. I’ve used a few of those picture in previous posts but there will be some more next week in a supplementary post featuring more images of the building’s fallow years. If you have any memories or pictures of this quirky but much loved building please feel free to share them with us, so that the Commonwealth Institute does not ever become a forgotten building.

20 responses to “What is the Commonwealth Institute?

  • Roger J Morgan

    We visited on Sunday. I do regret that the central circular floating platform with Piranesian flying staircases has been removed – the building was more than its roof.

    However, on leaving, I found one remnant of the old Commonwealth Institute, whether left deliberately or as an accident I don’t know. Where the paving on Kensington High Street changes from municipal to Design Museum one row of the original Commonwealth Institute paving remains, bearing the names of some Commonwealth countries – clearly labelling the nearest row of now vanished flagpoles.

    In 50 years time this will feature in ‘Forgotten London’ books.

  • Anna

    These pictures really show how much better the interior looked with the old open circular design and the cafe overlooking the park. Despite the size of the atrium in the new interior the actual spaces you can walk in felt cramped, enclosed and dull because apart from a couple of photos on one wall there’s nothing to look at besides the gaping void of the atrium itself. Thanks for posting this lovely reminder of how it used to look. The thing I most remember from childhood visits was the see-through plastic cow.

  • Peter Freeman

    There was a theatre there where they recorded radio shows and you could sit in the audience.

  • Anna

    This is a fascinating look back at the Commonwealth Institute! I went to school nearby in the late 80s/early 90s and I don’t remember ever going on a school trip there…although I would imagine we must have! (Perhaps I just have a bad memory…) We did however have our end of year school play at the Institute’s theatre for a couple of years.

  • Louise Mitchell

    Thanks an absolute bunch for posting the photos of how the C W I used to look. I haven’t been to see the ‘new look’ yet. I bet that I agree that the old circular design is better!!! I remember the ‘lion’ (like to think it wasn’t killed especially)and the wooden horse. Didn’t look like a horse though,just a saddle on a big piece of wood, highly polished!!! I loved it there,went with family, so interesting, horrified when it became derelict. I remember the ‘roof’ and the bridge like walkway to the entrance. Loved it all!!!! Change is ‘NOT’ always good, sometimes it’s worst!!! Even things much more important!!!!! Thks again!!

  • Sue

    Oh I went here in 1974. Found this article while looking online for information. It was an amazing place. As you entered the shop there was a gorgeous smell which I was told was Sandalwood joss sticks. So I bought some. It wasn’t the same and I’ve been searching ever since! Me and my friend bought tiny bead necklaces. The height of fashion!
    We went on an earthquake simulator and in a glass walkway which changed temperature to freezing & tropical.

  • Russell Wilson

    I remember going there ashould a school kid in the 70’s.
    I lived in notting Hill, and my mum worked as a house maid for a rich family who livedo just off Holland Park ave.
    So spare time , whilst mum was working , was to visit the institute.
    We ran around the building because it was free, but what was more appealing was the food they gave out. To sample all the different tastes of the commonwealth.
    We were fed, and entertained. Happy days.

  • Big White Bois: Design Museum, Hope to Nope – P.A.S.T.E

    […] was in place to ‘promote a better understanding of the Commonwealth and its people in Britain’1 are we still allowed to enjoy the displays knowing that the context of the building was used to […]

  • Janet Nemetz

    My Mum used to walk to her hairdressers or to the British Home Store and stop to take a break at the CWI
    she would sit outside by the water, where the lion statues where and watch the ducks and birds. She died in 1992. She was visiting me in America and I flew home with her ashes and buried them by the Lion with broken ear. I just found out about the design museum as I haven’t been home since mum passed away. So sorry to hear the news.

  • Jeffrey Davis

    Whenever football or cricket was rained off at my prep school in Swiss Cottage, in the 1960s, we were packed off to the Commonwealth Institute. Therefore I visited this place very many times. Also my home in Earl’s Court was walking distance so I did not have to get the school bus back but could just walk home. I found it a bit boring as I went there so many times as a child. I remember that there was a cinema which showed ‘Look at Life’ type documentaries. I remember the fake ‘chocolate’ in one of the exhibits – typical that I should just remember that. Years later I did an MA in Commonwealth History at Birkbeck College, University of London and I recall using the library there for research. The had a record library which introduced me to the work of some very fine twentieth century Commonwealth composers including Malcolm Williamson (Australia) and Douglas Lilburn (New Zealand). It was very nostalgic reading the pamphlet above and I recall the mangy lion as well!

  • Julie

    Thanks you so much for solving a mystery memory of my 8yr old self! I visited the commonwealth institute as a school girl and the only memory I had was standing outside under the flags to have my photo taken . It has niggles for years where I was ,at last the mystery is solved. Fascinating pictures .thank you

  • Helen Kasparian

    Used to go ENDLESSLY – it was a top three Saturday outing for me aged 8! (late 70s) My favourite bits were the Mangy Lion and the Huge attraction that you seem to have forgotten – the EARTHQUAKE ROOM. This was a room that you went in and stood on platform whilst watching a film. At the key moment, the platform shook a bit – creating the sensation of an earthquake. And if I’m not mistaken, the temperature went up to add to the feeling of being in a faraway land. There was also a dusty corner dedicated to the Arctic (I think) with a stuffed polar bear.

  • Jeffrey Davis

    I also remember the ‘earthquake room’. Thanks for alerting us to that distant memory.

  • Martin S

    I remember the “hot room” a take on the Malaysian jungle. spent many happy days in the Commonwealth Institute in the 70s

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