The Imperial Institute was established by Royal Charter in 1888 as a memorial to the Jubilee of Queen Victoria. 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 purpose 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 these and kindred activities in the overseas Empire, and also in the 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, H.M. 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.
In 1902 an Act of Parliament was passed, transferring the management of the Institute to the Board of Trade. The Act required the Board to carry out, as far as practicable, the purpose of the Imperial Institute as defined in the Charter, but it also enabled the Board to pay due importance to commercial and industrial interest. In 1907, owing to the increase in contributions made by the Colonies to the activities of the Institute, an arrangement was made whereby this control was transferred to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, subject to the responsibilities of the Board of Trade under the Act of 1902.
This position was regularised by the Imperial Institute (Management) Act, 1916, and 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 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.
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. 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. In 1949, by Order in Council, after the Department of Overseas Trade had ceased to function, the control of the Institute was transferred from the Board of Trade to the Ministry of Education, the scientific and technical work of the Institute was transferred to the Colonial Office, and the purposes of the Institute were redefined on a mainly educational basis. On the passing of the Commonwealth Institute Act in 1958, the title of the Institute was changed, and authority was given to the Trustees to acquire a site on which to build new premises.