On the first day of January in the year 2000, across the globe humans celebrated the beginning of a new millennium. Calendar experts all agree that we did this one year too early but we dismissed them as killjoys and went ahead with parties anyway.
How did we in Britain commemorate this once-in-a-lifetime event? With what the then Prime Minister Tony Blair called “a chance for us all to shape our future and begin the 21st century with a sense of purpose, hope and unity.”
As it turned out, purpose, hope and unity were in short supply when it came to the Millennium Dome. That was the original name of the large dome-shaped building, specially built for the millennium, that lives on the Greenwich Peninsula in South East London. The placement was appropriate as the Prime Meridian passes through Greenwich, so it’s a location important to time, calendars, and millennia. The Dome housed the “Millennium Experience” which was open to the public from 1 January to 31 December 2000.
The project was blessed with bumps along the road from start to finish. On 31 December 1999, the opening New Year’s Eve event at the dome was attended by around 10,500 people, including the Prime Minister and Queen. Luckily, the Prime Minister and Queen weren’t among the thousands who froze for hours on Stratford station trying to get hold of their tickets.
Millions of pounds of public money were spent on the project, and millions more were needed from the government during the year the Millennium Experience was open. Visitor numbers had been predicted to be as high as 12 million. During the 12 months the Dome was open, approximately half that number arrived, and receipts failed to cover running costs.
Then there was the Experience itself. As Hansard reports, The Lord Bishop of Southwark remarked during a House of Lords debate on the Dome in November 2000: “It was light, airy, a wonderful open space, a miracle of architectural grace. Then we spoiled it; we put things in it.”
Above all, it was “the things we put in it” that disappointed many (me included). There were 14 zones, each with a commercial sponsor, and their logos dominated the space. You queued up to reach each zone, only to find that there was nothing worth queuing for, just low-tech exhibits with preachy messages. (“No Skills, No Job” was the threat in the Work zone.) Still, nothing takes your mind off corporate sponsorship like queuing up at a McDonald’s. Nothing reminds you of the dizzying heights of human achievement more than a BT-sponsored gadget telling you it’s good to talk.
Even the architects were keen to disassociate themselves from what was actually inside it.
We wanted fun, we wanted wow, we wanted spectacle. Instead, we got corporate blandness. The Dome needed a vision, a creative pulsing heart. Still, someone learned a lesson.
The disappointments of the Dome might well have played a part in making Isles of Wonder — the spectacle directed by Danny Boyle for the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games — such a success. You want 320 hospital beds which are also trampolines? You want David Beckham driving a motor boat down the River Thames? With fireworks? GO FOR IT! And, while you’re there, let’s have a giant baby’s head and the Queen jumping out of a helicopter.
It was completely bonkers, breathtaking and brilliant.
As Tony Blair summed up: “If I had my time again, I would have listened to those who said governments shouldn’t try to run tourist attractions.”
The physical Dome itself still exists — it’s now the O2 music venue — and it’s a lasting reminder that when you want Art, you really do need to hire an Artist.