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The Queen steps in to save New Zealand's mechanical cow

The Queen has rescued the Commonwealth Institute, the concrete big-top in Kensington which houses artistic and cultural objects from more than 50 nations, writes Richard Dowden.

The institute, which is celebrated among other things for its mechanical cow from New Zealand, has been threatened with closure since the Foreign Office announced in September that it was axing its pounds 3m-a-year grant.

Sources close to the head of the Commonwealth said she was deeply displeased by the Government's decision, and let her views be known. Such an intervention in government policy is most unusual. She has persuaded Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, to provide pounds 2.4m over three years to give the institute a breathing space in which to produce a survival plan, which will be presented to the institute's executive committee on

26 April. Already half the 100 staff have been made redundant.

The organisation, based off Kensington High Street, has long had its enemies. Brian Sewell, the art critic, said last month: 'The building itself is unforgivably ugly and, inside, it is designed to confuse.

'The temporary exhibitions have been unmitigated drivel for the last 20 years . . . The artefacts are just tourist trade rubbish.'

The Queen is said to be fond of the building and defensive about its role on the London school-trip circuit. At last May's Commonwealth centenary celebrations, she said: 'The institute brings the reality of the individual countries of the Commonwealth alive, and demonstrates the role the Commonwealth can play in the world and among its own members.'

The decision whether to fund the institute is a deeply political one and reflects Britain's view of its global role. Whitehall happily funds other institutions, such as the Anglo-German Foundation and the Russian and Chinese centres. The decision to axe a Commonwealth body implies a further move away from former colonies.

The four-point survival plan

includes a commercially operated conference centre, an educational and cultural institute, a business centre serving Commonwealth countries and galleries and exhibition halls to be based on themes rather than


However, the institute has told the Foreign Offfice that it cannot survive without continued core funding from the Government. Stephen Cox, institute director, estimates the cost of relaunching the exhibition centre will be less than pounds 5m, half of which could be raised from the public and the rest from sponsorship.

The Foreign Office has yet to decide its long-term attitude: but the issue is certainly back on the agenda.