|In 1886, the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) addressed a letter to the Lord Mayor of London suggesting a special commemoration of Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee and proposing an Institute which would be a tribute from the people of the Colonial and Indian Empire and which would represent their Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. In addition, the Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886 which was held in buildings erected in the Royal Horticultural Society's Gardens on the Commissioners' Estate, initially for the 1883 Fisheries Exhibition, illustrated the resources of the Colonial and Indian possessions of Great Britain and underlined the importance of the project for establishing an institution by which knowledge of these resources could become more widely known. The Committee appointed to develop the scheme hoped that the United Kingdom would also be represented in any memorial.
On receipt of a formal application from the organising committee, the Commissioners agreed to grant on their Estate a site of seven acres that had formerly been part of the Royal Horticultural Society's Gardens. They stipulated that they could not use their own funds for the Institute's building emphasising that their surplus income had been pledged in part to the promotion of science and art, including technical education, in the form of scholarships.
A Royal Charter was granted to the Institute, the building's maintenance to be secured by an endowment fund, and a 999 year lease was granted by the Commissioners. The building, designed by T.E. Colcutt, was opened by the Queen on 10 May 1893.
The Institute soon ran into financial difficulties and by the Imperial Institute Act of 1 January 1903 it passed into the hands of the Government with the concurrent extinguishing of the Royal Charter. The Commissioners' support for the research laboratory, which had also come under Government control, ceased in 1905. Responsibility for the management of the Institute was held subsequently by the Colonial Office and then by the Department of Overseas Trade, with the Institute's reputation based largely on its scientific work. It also supplied commercial and technical information and held educational events in the public exhibition galleries. It was this gallery space that the Commissioners, for many years, used for its Rome Scholarships competitions. The Institute's building was also used for examinations by the University of London.
By 1949 the Institute's functions were reduced to education and public information, the scientific departments having been transferred to the Colonial Office. In 1953 Imperial College was asked by the Government to double its numbers as part of a nation-wide scheme to increase the supply of trained scientists and engineers, and by the Commonwealth Institute Act of 1958 the Imperial Institute was empowered to erect a new building on a new site to make room for the expansion of Imperial College. The Imperial Institute building was demolished with only the Colcutt tower retained.
The Imperial Institute was renamed the Commonwealth Institute with its main function to spread knowledge and understanding and uphold the ideals represented by the Commonwealth.