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The great national exhibition housed in the Dome on the Meridian Line at Greenwich is a demonstration of our confidence and commitment to the future. Within the largest enclosed space on Earth are many examples of this country's inventiveness and imagination. The Millennium Experience, in the same tradition as its predecessors, the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the Festival of Britain in 1951, provides a focus for the nation's celebrations at an important moment in our history, bringing together people from communities throughout the United Kingdom and from many other countries.
– Queen Elizabeth II, 1 January, 2000
The Millennium Dome has been described as 'a beacon for all our futures', and is a 'landmark of outstanding proportions'. The Millennium Dome has also been described as 'an unsightly wok upturned upon Canary Wharf, glaring out across the water like a giant contraceptive diaphragm held in place with outsized knitting needles'.
Although the Dome itself is now a permanent feature on London's landscape, the Dome's original content, the Millennium Experience exhibition, is long gone. This article examines the conflicting views that the Millennium Experience generated. Never before has mankind spent so much time, energy and, above all, money on achieving mediocrity on such a colossal scale.
The Millennium Dome was Built to Mark a Highly Significant Calendar Date
Of course it was the Second Millennium in only the Gregorian calendar, which is one of many calendars in use worldwide. Even by that calendar, the Millennium Dome should have been opened on 1 January, 2001, as that was the date on which we entered the new Millennium. As a monument built to celebrate Christ's 2,000th birthday, as it is now widely held that the 6th Century scholar Dionysius Exiguus1 wrongly calculated Jesus' year of birth which is now thought to have taken place in around 6 BC, the new Millennium should have been celebrated in 1995.
What was the Millennium Experience?
The Millennium Dome was built to house the Millennium Experience, a 'celebration' of life in Britain in the year 2000, as interpreted by those companies who sponsored the experience. It was an attempt to make a 21st Century equivalent of the 1851 Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace. Rather than reconstruct the Crystal Palace2, a new building, the world's largest domed structure3, was constructed. This, the world's largest tent, contained 14 themed areas, called zones, broadly related to three different themes, as well as The Millennium Show and other attractions.
The Millennium Dome is a Positive Symbol for Britain
The Millennium Experience was denounced by many as a garish symbol of commercialism, built as a showy demonstration to other nations of Britain's wealth and power. In December 1998 the Archbishop of York, Dr Hope, described it as a monument to human arrogance which contrasts starkly with the true meaning of the birth of Christ.
The Millennium Dome has Attracted Comparisons with the Eiffel Tower
When the Eiffel Tower was under construction in Paris, it also suffered criticism from detractors who claimed that it was an ugly waste of a colossal amount of money. The Millennium Experience inside the Dome, like the Eiffel Tower, was not built to last, although unlike the Eiffel Tower it no longer exists4. It was open from 1 January, 2000, for one year only at a cost of nearly 24p per second.
The Millennium Experience Celebrates both Modern Art and Modern Sensibilities
Inside it was dominated by a hollow 90ft (27.4m) statue called The Body, depicting a 'sensual, reclining woman appearing to cradle or comfort a half-man', said by the designer to reflect women's rise in power and improving gender politics.
The Millennium Dome's celebration of the arts as justification of its existence rang as hollow as its centrepiece's statue. Many have felt that the female statue was dominant simply so visitors could avoid having to see a giant penis.
The Dome's Zones
The Millennium Dome celebrated life, religion and culture, under one expansive, and expensive, aeroplane-proof roof. It did this by 14 zones that loosely tied in with three themes:
Who We Are
The first of the themes which the zones were built around was entitled 'Who We Are'. The zones in this section were:
Generally advertised as the highlight of the Experience, as the biggest and outwardly most impressive of the zones. Visitors enter inside vaguely human-shaped seven-storey high sculptures, seeing a giant pulsating heart. The next exhibition shows shoals of sperm rushing to fertilise an egg, followed by an animatronic brain wearing a fez telling Tommy Cooper jokes, located in the female body's leg. An escalator then took the visitor down and out the lady's leg. Not quite 'It's a Small World After All'. Visually impressive on the outside, it sadly lacked content.
A zone whose highlight was morphing booths that changed the appearance of those who have their photograph taken inside them, just like the popular apps now on many smart phones. Sadly the queues for these ensured very few visitors would be able to witness this for themselves.
A tent within the tent with a sculpture of a baby, a brief discussion of religion in Britain including things such as the Tyndale Bible, the first Bible printed in English, and an area where visitors could write a thought about the year 2000 which would be sealed away and opened in 2050.
- Self Portrait
The Self Portrait zone was dominated by a collage made up of many photographs that contributors felt represented Britain. There was also a series of bizarre statues, such as one of a man with a toilet for a head and his boxer shorts down round his ankles.
What We Do
The second theme, which most of the zones were built around. The zones included:
A zone dedicated to exploring the monotony of work, with a clock reminding us that we work over 100,000 hours in life, as well as informing us that the world of work has changed over the years.
Up an escalator from Work, symbolising us that the skills we learn are used in the world of work.
An empty room designed for bored visitors to rest in while listening to a piece of music called 'Longplayer', designed to take 1,000 years to fully play.
Finally a fairly fun zone, but sadly interactive, meaning that the queues to take part in the fun on offer were too long for the majority of visitors.
Sponsored by telephone company BT, whose motto was 'It's good to talk'. In this zone, visitors were given the opportunity to learn about the history of communication, from smoke signals to the Internet. A highlight even offered the experience of sending an email!
If proof that the Millennium Experience was a waste of money was needed, a pile of £1 million's worth of genuine £50 notes was the highlight of this zone. Visitors were allowed to interact and play a game in which the aim was to spend £1 million in a minute - presumably taxpayer's money, just like the people behind the Experience... Another display showed what the city of London looked like, a unique experience for those visiting an attraction located in the city of London.
One of the best things in the Dome, a large, impressive zone dedicated to transport from the past to the future, and even in fiction. The Q Boat from the James Bond film The World is Not Enough, whose opening sequence takes place in the Dome, was one of the many exhibits.
Where We Live
The final theme.
- Shared Ground
A large spiral made out of cardboard.
- Living Island
An interesting zone built to look like a seaside resort, but made out of recycled materials to encourage thinking about the environment.
- Home Planet
This zone asked what aliens visiting Earth would think about it. Outside the zone was an impressive globe of Earth, which could be rotated by people working together. 'Twas symbolic, you see.
In addition to the 14 Zones, the Dome contained other attractions. For instance, there were a lot of statues and other works of art. There was The Millennium Jewels, 12 diamonds, including a big white one named 'Millennium Star' and lots of blue ones, one of which was called 'Heart of Eternity'. In total these were valued at over £200 million. Entertainingly, a gang tried to steal them, only to have been under police investigation at all times.
Skyscape - Blackadder Back And Forth
A ticket to the Millennium Experience also allowed the visitor to watch Blackadder Back and Forth at a specially-constructed temporary entertainment venue named the Skyscape. This, a specially commissioned episode of the popular Blackadder comedy series, reunited the cast for a one-off story involving time-travel through much of Britain's history. This episode has subsequently been released on DVD.
'The Millennium Show'
During the exhibition at the very centre of the Dome, a special dance, music and aerial performance show regularly took place, involving 160 performers and featuring music written by Peter Gabriel. The plot was about two groups of people, ground dwellers and skypeople, and love across the boundaries. A bit like the plot of One Million Years BC, only without the dinosaurs and with less dialogue. Not quite Romeo and Juliet by any means, but largely an excuse for the performers to walk around on stilts and swing around on wires for a bit, before the climax of building a pile of scaffolding covered in graffiti. That said, it was still spectacular and could be regarded as a small-scale forerunner to the Olympic Ceremonies 12 years later.
The Greenwich Meridian
The Dome is located on the Greenwich Meridian, which is the Earth's Prime Meridian, from which all the Earth's time zones are set. A red line outside the zone showed exactly where the Meridian is located. Visitors can be photographed either side of the zone, and thus on either sides of the planet, or even by standing astride the line, being on both halves of Earth at once.
Festival of Britain Bus
On display was a 1951 Festival of Britain Tour Bus, a double-decker bus that had travelled across Europe to encourage people to visit the Festival of Britain. It then became part of the Festival of Britain exhibition itself, and 49 years later was an unusually nostalgic part of the Millennium Experience.
The Millennium Dome was built on reclaimed land, which had once been one of Europe's most polluted areas. The reason that an area in the heart of London had stood undeveloped for over 20 years was because a gasworks had contaminated the soil up to a depth of 14 metres.
The Millennium Dome is a mastery of design and construction, with a floor area of nearly 20 acres, equivalent to two Wembley Stadiums, and the height of Nelson's Column. It is wide enough to contain the Eiffel Tower lying on its side, more than ten times the size of St Paul's Cathedral and over three times the size of the Colosseum. The roof's skin is made from two layers of woven glass fabric coated with Teflon that is 1mm thick. The Dome is held in place by 12 giant masts, symbolising the 12 hours of a clock or 12 months of the year. It is not completely symmetrical, containing on one side an outlet vent for the Blackwall Tunnel5 beneath.
The Millennium Dome Experience was dominated by the corporate sponsorship6 which helped to fund it. On the way in you pass a 1,000 seat McDonalds, a company who donated £12 million to the project. Although the Millennium Experience created 2,500 jobs during the construction phase alone, and boosted the local economy with two thirds of the contracts won by local businesses, the Dome's poor finances resulted in problems in paying the small businesses concerned.
The Millennium Dome lost a mind-boggling amount of money, as projected visitor numbers fell far below target. The Experience was built under the assumption that over 12 million visitors would visit in 2000. It never seemed to have been conceived as a remote possibility that less than that number would attend. Even the official guidebook confidently proclaimed:
By the end of the year 2000... Twelve million [people] will have visited the Dome at the Prime Meridian in Greenwich.
The truth was that half that number, 6.5 million, actually visited.
It was intended that the Millennium Dome would provide a focal point of celebration for the country, its history and future. The general public, however, actually felt that the Millennium Dome was an incredible waste of £801 million. The money could have been spent on under-funded humanitarian institutions, schools or the NHS. The Dome would not provide a positive symbol for the future for those who could not afford to visit it, both the cost to get there and the expense of the actual ticket. The Dome did not help to save lives, heat homes or clothe children. Its contents stood as a symbol of capitalist greed and wanton commercialism, not the bright humanitarian future for the country that it was supposed to represent.
The Dome did, at least, improve links to Greenwich with the extension of the Jubilee line to North Greenwich.
At first the Dome building itself stood empty for many years. Rumours had circulated that the Dome would become a theme-park, complete with an interactive Yellow Submarine ride. Sadly this was not to be, and for some time the Dome was a white elephant in the heart of London whose only role was to appear in the opening credits of EastEnders.
Since then it has been renamed the O2 Arena. As one of the world's largest arenas it has hosted many musical and sporting events7, as well as exhibitions such as Dr Gunther von Hagens' Body Worlds exhibition 'The Mirror of Time' in November 2008.
Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs Exhibition
The Dome hosted a Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs exhibition which ran from November 2007 to August 2008. The huge statue of the Egyptian jackal-headed god of the dead, Anubis, could be seen from miles away, up close it was extremely impressive! Entrance to the exhibition was by ticket only and they were timed to avoid massive queues. Part of the cost of the ticket was to help fund a new museum in Cairo to re-house the priceless treasures. Certain artefacts, particularly the Death Mask of the 'boy king' Tutankhamun, are not allowed to leave Egypt now due to their fragility. There were plenty of other treasures to admire, including a Canopic jar fashioned in Tutankhamun's image, which once housed his liver. The walls of the exhibition were adorned with paintings, hieroglyphs and symbols, one of which was particularly memorable as it was an unusual running ankh. For fans of everything ancient Egyptian, this was a must-see, especially if travel to Egypt itself was not possible.
The Olympic Games
In 2012, temporarily renamed the North Greenwich Arena, the Dome hosted events for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Just before this took place, London's first cable car was constructed to help transport visitors to see the Olympic events taking place in the Dome. After all, unlike the Millennium Experience, people actually wanted to travel to the Dome to see the Olympics.
Lessons learnt from the Dome almost certainly played a part in making the London 2012 Olympic Games, especially the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, the success that it was. For a start, the Dome's successes8 were repeated in the Opening Ceremony.
- The Millennium Dome was promoted in the opening sequence of the James Bond film The World is Not Enough in 1999. For the 2012 Olympic Games, James Bond, with the Queen, appeared in the opening ceremony.
- One of Rowan Atkinson's most famous characters, Blackadder, appeared at the Dome's Skyscape. Another of Rowan Atkinson's characters, Mr Bean, took part in the Olympic Opening Ceremony.
The failures of the Dome, too, were carefully noted. Instead of being something stuck in the centre of London, the Olympic Torch relay sent the Olympic spirit to every county in the country. Instead of just hoping the people of Britain would come to the Dome, the Olympic organisers sent out the spirit of the Olympics to the people of Britain.
The London 2012 Olympic Ceremonies avoided all namby-pamby, airy-fairy, blue-sky brainstorming outside the box vague concepts that the Millennium Exhibition prided itself on, nonsense like 'mind', 'body' and 'rest'. Instead they provided real, solid, identifiable entertainment and achievements. Brunel and the industrial revolution. The NHS, the fashion industry, the Internet, film and television icons. Above all, really good music, from Elgar to the popular music which has dominated the world for 50 years.