Dr Catherine Moriarty, University of Brighton
Dr Helen Charman, Head of Education, Design Museum
Dr Anita Rupprecht, University of Brighton
Donna Loveday, Head of Curatorial, Design Museum
In July 2005, English Heritage declared the Commonwealth Institute in Kensington to be ‘one of the two most important post-war buildings in London’ along with the Royal Festival Hall. Their bold statement came in response to a campaign to de-list the Grade II* listed tent-like building with its distinctive copper-clad hyperbolic paraboloid roof. The request was turned down, but despite English Heritage’s stress on building’s significance, there has been little written about the Commonwealth Institute or its work in representing the various members of the Commonwealth.
Histories of the Commonwealth tend to focus largely on the political development and constitutional evolution of the organisation, and not on its cultural manifestations within Britain. The Commonwealth Institute occupies a blind spot in this regard. Most studied by architectural historians, the Institute tends to be considered either within the context of other experimental structures such as Félix Candela’s concrete shells in Mexico, or in the tradition of post-war British modernism following the 1951 Festival of Britain. While such approaches are valid, they do not take into account the actual remit of the Institute in promoting and representing the Commonwealth or its role in defining Britain’s role within a changing post-imperial world.
The Design Museum’s impending move to the Kensington site, scheduled for 2014, provides an invaluable opportunity to re-evaluate the Commonwealth Institute’s significance. This research project aims to further understanding of how ideas of the Commonwealth were represented through several aspects of the Institute, such as its displays, architecture, film showings and exhibitions. Using a theoretical framework established by studies in nationalism, the politics of display and postcolonial theory, I propose to investigate how the Commonwealth Institute formed a significant and complex space through which ideas about national identity and international relations were negotiated, facilitated and contested. As well as contributing to studies of design history, this doctoral project aims to consider how the Design Museum can incorporate the history of the Commonwealth Institute in its own display strategies.
This research project will increase understanding of under-researched archival material. One such example is the James Gardner archive at the University of Brighton’s Design Archives, which holds Gardner’s proposed drawings for the Commonwealth Institute. Many of these objects and dioramas displayed at the Institute’s opening in 1962 were previously on display at its predecessor, the Imperial Institute, where they represented distant territories of the Empire. A study of how such objects and displays were re-cast in order to fit narratives of Commonwealth will allow me to consider in detail the various discourses circulating around the end of Empire and the formation of the Commonwealth.
Read how Tom Wilson spent August at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad as Curator in Residence following a British Council open call as part of their Design Curation Programme in India.