David Brooks, a senior editor at the US political magazine The Weekly Standard, finds the Millennium Experience exemplifies the best and worst of contemporary cultureby David Brooks / July 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
The Weekly Standard
13th April 1998
Does any country have more reason to be proud of itself than Britain? Twenty-five years ago its economy was a shambles, the IMF had to take over its fiscal policy, and its people lived in cold flats with bad plumbing. Today, Britain has one of the most vibrant economies in the world. The nation’s capital is gleaming and its culture is dynamic. Yet the country is tongue-tied on one subject: itself.
Britain’s elites are so afraid of sounding like John Bull superpatriots that they can’t express mature national pride or subtle ideas about their national identity. America is similarly inarticulate about itself; but our shortcomings are not so on display, because we are not throwing a big national celebration to herald the millennium.
Margaret Thatcher came up with the original idea for the Millennium Exhibition, and when Tony Blair was won over after the election the project was off to the races-imbued with the styles of three governments: the virile and sometimes grating big think of Thatcher; the empty technique of Major; and the mushy big think of Blair.
Blair assigned the project to his minister with ego but without portfolio, Peter Mandelson. It was his job to figure out what should go inside the Dome. The 1951 Festival of Britain had been about the permanent features of Britain: it had pavilions on the Land of Britain, the Sea and Ships, the Minerals of the Island, and one on the national legends and spirit called the Lion and the Unicorn. Mandelson’s 2000 Dome has themes, but no central vision.
Part of the problem is that most of the planning was assigned to architects and designers. These people spend their professional lives working on various projects around the world, more connected to the floating global community of show-business than to any nation. So in the 2000 exposition, unlike its predecessors, Britishness is lost under platitudes about the global village, the fragility of the earth and the brotherhood of man. The one section of the show devoted to British identity-annoyingly called uk@now-is being designed by a French architect.
The supposed theme for the exposition is “Time’s Arrow,” which doesn’t actually tie you down to anything. So the installations have names such as Dreamscape, Serious Play and Spirit Level. For the designers, these concepts lend themselves to eye-catching display. But can you imagine leaving an installation…