Commonwealth Institute seeks new theme

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The Independent Online
THE Commonwealth Institute, set up in 1958 as a showcase for the nations of the former British Empire, is trying to turn itself into a theme park to avoid closure following the Government's decision to pull the plug on funds.

This and other proposals were discussed yesterday at the annual board meeting of the governors - their first since the Foreign Office announcement in September that it would stop the grant which currently provides 80 per cent of the Institute's budget.

Stephen Cox, the Institute's Director-General, said the vision for the future was to focus on 'themes rather than countries' - pooling together the resources of the 50-odd nations that currently have individual exhibits in the listed building.

This might be in the form of a large exhibition on, say, the environment, which it is hoped would attract the large number of visitors that today fail to grace the Institute's doors. 'We must address the younger generation,' Mr Cox said.

One idea to liven things up, say campaigners to save the Institute, would be to imitate the much-lauded Viking exhibition at York, where trains take visitors through life in a typical Viking village. With one continent working together, visitors might take a train journey through Africa.

Clearly, the existing attractions - which reflect the growing lack of purpose and glamour in the Commonwealth itself - will have to improve. Take New Zealand's permanent exhibit: the centrepiece amid the Maori carvings is a model of 'a typical farmland in Taranaki Province, North Island, the world's largest exporter of cheese'.

Another exhibit bears testimony to the problems of a pro-democratic grouping that includes deeply undemocratic members: the Sierra Leone showcase is hidden in darkness behind a pillar and bears a cardboard sign: 'Government: the National Provisional Ruling Council headed by Captain Valentine Strasser took power in Sierra Leone on 30.4.1992. The House of Representatives has been dissolved and political activity suspended. This display will be updated in due course, meanwhile further information is available from the Resource Centre on this floor.'

The 'Resource Centre' is what the Institute calls its library.

Mr Cox said the decision by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to withdraw funding 'represents a victory of accountants over long- term policy'. He added: 'It also represents the feeling that the Commonwealth is no longer relevant to Britain, and a victory of Foreign over Commonwealth in the Office.' He added that annual upkeep of the Institute 'costs less than the average comprehensive' and 'about the same as Kensington Fire Station'.

Mr Cox even issued a veiled threat in the form of the Head of the Commonwealth herself. The Queen was a 'strenuous supporter', he said, adding: 'I know she has our best interests at heart. It is appropriate for us to keep the Palace informed.'

Some Commonwealth countries on the board of governors said they would be willing to look at increasing their small funding of the Institute, but only if the British government was willing to reconsider. Most imminently the Institute suffers from a decaying roof, since the copper tiles provided by African member-states are falling off.

(Photograph omitted)