On Opening Ceremonies - by Tom Wilson

Imagining Empire: Designing the Commonwealth Institute by Tom Wilson is published today
The book provides insights into the interrelations between architecture, national identity and politics, as well as into the collaborative process between architect and exhibition designer.

In light of the re-opening of the Design Museum earlier this month, author Tom Wilson explores the historical and cultural significance of the 'opening ceremonies' that have marked the lifecycle of the Commonwealth Institute / Design Museum building -- and how the rhetoric surrounding these moments has been based on various perceptions of national and cultural identity... 


On Opening Ceremonies


On Tuesday May 18th this year, the Design Museum finally re-opened following the latest COVID-19 lockdown. Given the unexpected nature of the shutdown, the museum’s reopening was relatively lowkey. However, the occasion nonetheless made me think about the nature of opening ceremonies and the rhetoric surrounding openings in general – and, in particular, the way in which they reveal something about how a nation sees itself and its place in the world.


The opening of the Commonwealth Institute on 6 November 1962 was one such occasion. The circumstances by which the Institute re-opened at new premises in High Street Kensington was troubled to say the least, but the opening was carefully designed to present the opposite impression – it was a highly staged event aimed at emphasising Commonwealth unity at a time when Britain’s imperial bonds were being severely tested.


Queen Elizabeth opening the Commonwealth Institute on 6 November 1962.


The Institute was formally opened by Queen Elizabeth II, after which she was presented with a bouquet of flowers by Jane Repetto from Tristan da Cunha, Britain’s smallest overseas territory. She was then led around the individual country displays where a dignitary from each country waited to greet her. The effect was akin to a tour of the Commonwealth in miniature. Indeed, in her opening speech the Queen noted how the exhibition galleries had the potential to enable the imaginative travel of the world in a single place, saying: 

... between us, my husband and I have seen more of the Commonwealth than almost any people alive. To us its diversity and unity, and the friendliness of all its many peoples, are alive and real. Unfortunately, it is not possible for all the people of Britain to travel quite so extensively; but this building provides the next best thing.


Jane Repetto from Tristan de Cunha presents a posy of orchids from Kenya to the Queen
The Queen tours the exhibition galleries with the Chairman, Sir James Robertson, after the opening ceremony

However, despite the forward-looking rhetoric, the opening of the Commonwealth Institute took place against an increasingly troubled political background; only a few years earlier, the Suez Canal crisis exposed the decline of Britain’s role on the world stage. The Malayan Emergency (1948-1960) and the Mau Mau uprising (1952-1960) also threatened preconceptions of the British as benevolent rulers. It was increasingly clear – in contrast to the message of the opening ceremony – that Britain’s role on the world stage was declining, and the countries of the Commonwealth were increasingly making themselves heard.


And yet, inside the Commonwealth Institute’s exhibition galleries at least, British officials could still present a picture of the world as they imagined it to be. Many of the individual country courts showed countries as benefitting from benevolent British rule and investment. Designed by James Gardner, they drew heavily on a modernisation theory of development, promoting an industrialised, capitalist model of growth in line with Western democratic values. However, such ideals are deeply problematic in that they assume that Western civilisation is technically and morally superior to traditional societies, which have little value compared to those of the West.


The Queen visiting the Australia court. James Gardner, the Institute’s consultant designer, stands to her right.
James Gardner’s design for the Ceylon court at the Commonwealth Institute. Photograph courtesy of the James Gardner Archive, held by the Design Archives at the University of Brighton.



Their vision was not to last. The Commonwealth Institute’s displays were increasingly destabilised as former territories of the Empire declared their independence throughout the 1960s and 1970s, and the Institute’s organisers struggled to keep pace with the changes. Eventually, the Commonwealth Institute closed its doors in 2004, the victim of a chronically leaky roof and an ever-decreasing public subsidy. The land was sold to the Ilchester Estate, who subsequently leased the building to a new occupant – the Design Museum.


Work gets underway inside the new Design Museum, 2016. Photograph by French + Tye.


The completed Design Museum, 2016.



Following its comprehensive redevelopment by John Pawson in 2016, the Design Museum’s move to Kensington was marked by another opening ceremony. The building was formally opened by the late Prince Philip on 14 November 2016, while the red ribbon was cut by Sir Terence Conran, the Design Museum’s founder.



Sir Terence Conran opens the new Design Museum on 24 November 2016. Photograph by Luke Hayes.



On the surface of it, there is little to compare this moment with that of the Commonwealth Institute more than fifty years earlier. And yet, the language used by British politicians and industrialists to describe the Design Museum’s move to Kensington was particularly striking for revealing something of how they saw Britain’s place in the world.


In 2012, the then Culture Minister Ed Vaizey celebrated the project for 'creating the world’s greatest Design Museum'. Sir Stuart Lipton, of property development company Chelsfield, applauded the project by saying that it would establish 'the world’s leading centre for design and architecture'. Boris Johnson, then Lord Mayor of London, was equally fulsome in his praise, saying London 'deserves a world-class museum to celebrate the amazing work being created here in the UK'. Such statements appear to suggest the idea of a ‘contest’ with other countries, rather than the idea of a museum as one of many equal forums through which knowledge is shared.


Here, then, is an example of subtle rhetoric being marshalled through language. The logic behind ‘world-class’ and ‘world-leading’ organisations suggest a linear perception of modernity in which Western benchmarks constitute the parameters required to be recognised as a ‘pinnacle’ of the ‘world community’ (or a desire for Western nations to be seen as the ‘home’ for such organisations). There are echoes of modernisation theory at work here, particularly in the (misleading) idea that all nations progress along quasi-evolutionary lines from subsistence to fully industrialised economies, from traditional through to provincial, to modernised and, finally, world-class.


Both opening ceremonies, then, remind us of the importance of studying rhetoric and tracking shifts in design and display strategies. They reveal much about how we see the world, and the inherent imbalances in how we talk about the countries of the world and those who inhabit them. The challenge for the Design Museum, then, lies in understanding the importance of representation, in recognising bias and in developing appropriate strategies in response. The Institute’s complicated history, for example, reminds us that designers, objects, processes, materials and ideas are not restricted to national frontiers; they travel across borders and are consumed by a wide range of cultures in different ways. In addition, a self-reflective attitude and an understanding of how the subtleties of display can oppress might lead the museum to embrace new forms of collaboration, learning and sharing knowledge. As historian Paul Gilroy suggests, a nation’s 'buried and disavowed colonial history might become useful at last as a guide to the evasive, multicultural future'.



Imagining Empire: Designing the Commonwealth Institute by Tom Wilson is published today!

Hardcover • 176 Pages • Size: 240 × 170 mm
110 B&W illustrations and 60 colour illustrations
ISBN: 9781848224100 • May 27, 2021