The Imperial Institute was established by royal charter in 1888 as a memorial to the Jubilee of Queen Victoria. Its building in South Kensington, London, was opened in 1893. The site was provided by the Commissioners of the International Exhibition 1851, and funds for the building and equipment were contributed from private and official sources throughout the empire.
The main object of the institute was to act as a centre for information and investigation concerning trade, industry and emigration, and to illustrate and promote the development of such activities in the empire and United Kingdom.
A notable feature of its early history is that the corporation of the institute, to secure the interest and financial support of the general public, sought to develop the institute as a club and centre of social activities; the attractions included concerts, dining-rooms and pleasure gardens.
These social activities were eventually abolished, and, in 1899, the government, to relieve the institute of its financial difficulties, took over the buildings: part was given to the institute on a long lease, and a considerable portion was assigned to the University of London.
At the beginning of 1903 the institute was placed under the management of the Board of Trade as a result of a local Act of the previous year: the Imperial Institute (Transfer) Act. Four government ministers were appointed as a body corporate, known as the Imperial Institute Trustees, to manage the endowment fund. Contributions from the colonies towards its finances began to increase, and in 1907 control of the Institute was transferred to the Colonial Office by an arrangement between the two departments concerned. This arrangement was given statutory sanction in 1916 by the Imperial Institute (Management) Act.
It was suggested at the time that the object of this arrangement was to put the Imperial Institute in a strong position to take a leading part in the industrial and commercial re-organisation which would follow after the war.
The work of the institute developed along three main lines: laboratory and workshop research by the Scientific and Technical Department (until 1896 the Scientific and Practical Research Department) into the uses of raw materials; the collecting and issuing of information by a branch of the Scientific and Technical Department about the arrangement and uses of raw materials; and the illustration of the resources and potentialities of the empire by the arrangement of the exhibition galleries on a geographical and mainly educational basis, which aimed to produce information for the general public and parties from schools. The institute also maintained a library and reading rooms.
In 1923, a committee of inquiry was set up under the Chairmanship of Lord Harlech to examine the work of the Institute, and this report was followed by the Imperial Institute Act of 1925, which gave control of the Institute to the Department of Overseas Trade. The Imperial Mineral Resources Bureau was amalgamated with it. Amongst other provisions, the rights of the University of London over half of the main building were maintained.
The chief aim of the Institute remained the same - "to promote the commercial, industrial and educational interest of the British Empire" - but the Act redefined the ways in which this aim was to be achieved. The main emphasis was laid on the work of the institute in the field of scientific and technical investigation and intelligence; but the Act stressed the broader educational value and widened the scope of the galleries.
The Executive Council which had managed the institute during the period of Colonial Office responsibility was replaced by a Board of Governors, with up to twenty six members, variously appointed, and the number of trustees was increased to eight. In 1926 a Plant and Animal Products Department and a Mineral Resources Department were formed, each with its own laboratory and intelligence sections carrying out investigations and dealing with enquiries. The former department was assisted by an Advisory Council on Plant and Animal Products and a number of special consultative committees.
After the abolition of the Department of Overseas Trade in 1946 the institute remained responsible to the Secretary for Overseas Trade until 1949. In April that year the scientific and technical work of the institute was taken over by the Colonial Office. Greater demands were being made on its resources by colonial territories while the dominions had developed their own scientific research facilities. The Plant and Animal Products Department became the Colonial Products Advisory Bureau (Plant and Animal) and the Mineral Resources Department became the Mineral Resources Division of the Directorate of Colonial Geological Surveys. The Imperial Institute became a mainly educational body and in 1949 was transferred to the Ministry of Education.
In 1953, an Order in Council made the Imperial Institute an independent grant aided institution, the Minister of Education remaining responsible to Parliament for its activities. In 1958, under the terms of the Commonwealth Institute Act 1958, its title was changed to the Commonwealth Institute and authority was given to the trustees to acquire a site on which to build new premises.