Commonwealth Institute: many cultures under one roof

It's the world's biggest and brightest geography lesson: three-dimensional, five-sensational, on countries from Australia to Zambia. There's enough scope in the stimulating multimedia exhibits at the Commonwealth Institute in London to give visitors a whole new perspective on the world --which is precisely the intention.

The Commonwealth Institute is the showplace for the association of 42 independent country members -- the number keeps increasing -- and many participating self-governing states, all of whom had ties to the former British Empire, known as the Commonwealth. The sun never sets on the Commonwealth, which represents one-quarter of the world's population, living on one-quarter of the earth's land mass.

Significant not only for its size and population, which, in individual countries, run the gamut from British Antarctic Territory with 1,724,940 square kilometers and no permanent population to Hong Kong with 1,035 square kilometers and well over 4.5 million residents, the Commonwealth is also fascinating for its diversity. Those associated with the commonwealth vary enormously in standard and style of living, culture, race, and religion.

The Commonwealth Institute is a center for the celebration of this diversity. Opened in 1962 by Queen Elizabeth II, the institute captures the many cultures colorfully and creatively under the roof, in a multitude of ways: film, food, festivals, special events, seminars, lectures, art, artifacts, and theater. There are "hands on" opportunities: try on a sari, sample West Indian food, learn an African dance.

On the three floors of galleries -- staffed by guides from different Commonwealth countries -- there are eye-catching and eye-opening discoveries: Gibraltar has a Keeper of the Apes, tail-less golden monkeys that were originally brought to the 2 1/4 square mile state by the Moors; a transparent New Zealand cow that shows how milk is made; the geological marvel held sacred by the aborigines, a 335-meter high isolated outcrop in the central Australian desert known as Ayres Rock; and masks and music from New Guinea, mosques and mosaics from India.

If your schoolday social studies courses were completed a while ago, there may be countries whose names you don't recognize: Belize, Brunei, the Gambia, Lesotho, Sri Lanka, and Tuvalu. As places within the British Commonwealth gained their independence, they often took a new name. Belize, for example, was previously known as British Honduras, while Sri Lanka is the former Ceylon.

Whatever their differences, what members of the Commonwealth share in common is a wealth of goodwill for British institutions and English as a working language. The voluntary Commonwealth relationship is informal, without constitution or charter. Information and experience in economics, education, science, health, agriculture, and the professions are exchanged.

It's not hard to recognize the Commonwealth Institute when approaching it on London's Kensington High Street -- a No. 73 bus from Oxford Street, or a No. 9 from Piccadilly delivers you to the door. Forty-two flagpoles and accompanying national standards fill its front yard. The institute and its activities are free, from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday, Sunday from 2 to 5 p.m.

At the Canadian exhibit, a statement on the wall sums up from the point of view of an individual country what visitors can gain at the institute. Along with their model ice hockey player, Indian totem poles, and saddles from the Calgary Stampede, Canadians have written: "To know the land and what we have made of it is to know our history, economy, sense of who we are, and our way of looking at the world.

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