The New Statesman Profile - The Dome

In a few days, the poor thing will be gone, and the carpers won't have it to kick around any more. T

As Oscar Wilde would have put it, to visit the Millennium Dome once may be regarded as . . . Oh, stop it: I confess to having been thrice to the North Greenwich folly, instantly labelling myself a masochist, a techno-nerd or a man with much too much time on his hands. It means, also, that I have paid it three visits more than many of its most vitriolic critics.

I am not defending the botched attempt to provide Britain with a fitting symbol of itself for the new millennium. Why the project failed is no mystery. It lacked an overarching theme to unite the random, half-baked symbols of our national self-image that lurked inside the various zones. It needed something more to say about the British than that, despite our apparent self-obsession, we love each other to bits, that we are sturdily independent but mutually supportive, and that we worry about the environment.

It was a theme park without a theme. To identify one, and present it compellingly, was always going to be a formidable challenge; but if the organisers had succeeded in this, there is no reason why the initial visitor target of 12 million, now universally derided as over-optimistic, should not have been met.

I have just finished writing a book about the Great Exhibition of 1851, which attracted more visitors over five and a half months than will have been to the Dome in a full year - and at a time when the British population was a third of its present level. The planning process in 1851 was the very reverse of the Dome's. First came the concept of what the exhibition would contain, and only later - just in the nick of time - was the form of the building determined.

A group of men interested in the nascent art of industrial design saw the need for an exhibition that would show off the best products of Britain's new mechanical manufacturing processes and the fruits of its empire. They persuaded Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's consort, to support the idea; and, at his suggestion, overseas manufacturers were invited to participate as well. The original plan was to house it in a solid, lumpen structure made mostly of brick, until Joseph Paxton came up with his revolutionary design for a hall made entirely of glass, quickly dubbed the Crystal Palace.

So the Great Exhibition was driven from the beginning by an idea, not a venue. Its creators believed that mid-19th-century Britain had something to boast about and that its products could bear comparison with those of its principal competitors. By contrast, it is hard to think of any powerful message that, 150 years later, we want to shout from the tops of our city skyscrapers. Before the Dome opened, people had been asked to name a single object or attribute that was, for them, the most potent symbol of Britain. The responses, set out in the Self Portrait Zone, embraced giant dahlias, an Oxo cube, bloody-mindedness, the Sun, Balti cuisine, Richard Branson, car-boot sales, Tooting Bec Lido and much, much else. How do you distil a theme out of all that?

Not that this lack of a unifying concept of ourselves is necessarily a bad thing: one of the lessons of the 20th century was that countries with a strong sense of national purpose make uncomfortable and often dangerous neighbours. But to accept that we have no such purpose makes it hard to devise an effective framework for putting ourselves on display. The failure at North Greenwich, while an expensive miscalculation, was no national disgrace.

When I last visited the Dome, on a Thursday in late November, it was my first time there since the bouncy Pierre-Yves Gerbeau was parachuted in from EuroDisney to apply some of his fabled know-how to the flagging project. I was surprised how little had changed since January. A few colourful hoopla stalls and other fairground games had been placed outside the entrance, but, at £1.50 a go, they were attracting hardly any punters. Inside, the lumpen, shocking pink model of a gigantic human body was still the first thing that visitors came across, its tame content woefully short of the telling insights into our make-up that we had been promised. I had hoped that the dynamic Frenchman would turn it into an anatomical ghost train, a ride through our blood vessels during which we encountered hazards such as blocked arteries, fractured limbs and dive-bombing pubic lice. That would have been worth queueing for.

I wonder whether Gerbeau was responsible for introducing the Mrs Mopp character, the 1940s charlady who greeted visitors to the Work Zone, sweeping and dusting and urging us to "Wipe your feet as you go in", in a Cockney accent. I did not remember her from last time and she surprised me, because the futuristic Dome did not allow itself many glances back at the past.

Indeed, she was the only feature of the Work Zone representing anything our forefathers would have recognised as work. Inside was a ludicrous array of symbols and patronising messages. Hundreds of mechanical hamsters whirred around treadmills. Billboards advertised the virtues of such fashionable, nebulous buzz-words as portable skills, virtual teams and mobile working.

The Mind Zone changed significantly over the year. The displays of robots that greeted visitors as they arrived in January were scarcely ever in working order and, by November, they had been replaced by a set of mundane optical illusions. The colony of leaf-cutter ants was still there, taking bits of leaves from one end of a glass cage to another. Intriguing though this was, it could equally have warranted a place in the Work Zone, or indeed, in London Zoo.

Among the many exhortatory messages posted around the zone was: "Without our minds, we would never be able to make sense of the world around us. Like a camera, we would take in every-thing and understand nothing."

Such revelations of the stunningly obvious were everywhere. Any baggage of prior knowledge that visitors may have left home with was assumed to have been checked in at the Dome entrance. Why else would the Faith Zone have felt obliged to tell us that "Jesus lived most of his life in obscurity and died tragically young"? The dumbing-down of faith reached its nadir in a set of coin machines that offered to produce a prayer for 20p. Invited to choose one based on the name of a chocolate bar, I plumped for Delight, and this mantra appeared on the screen: "Keep me warm, keep me safe, keep me in the lap of luxury." The machine, showing suitable contrition, returned my 20p afterwards.

This is not to say that there was nothing at the Dome worth taking the trouble to see. The Journey Zone was one of the most popular - and, interestingly, one of the few containing significant historical content, with a well-mounted exhibition illustrating the development of transportation down the ages, focusing in the latter stages on the Ford motor-car. (Guess who was the sponsor.) The Play Zone was innovative, though often congested. The music and dance show in the huge central space was spectacular - even if its meaning remained obscure after three visits.

In all the critiques of the Dome, I seldom saw any reference to the admirable live shows at the Our Town Story stage, possibly because the stage was sponsored by the politically incorrect McDonald's. On most days through the year, a single community was invited to present a short show that said something about themselves and the place they came from. The two I saw - from Dudley early in the year and from Sefton in November - again laid emphasis on history and were, in most respects, more rigorously thought out than the exhibits in the surrounding zones. Impressive amounts of work and talent had been invested, and in both cases the results were triumphant - a more effective advertisement for the community spirit in action than the lip-service paid to togetherness in the other zones.

The Great Exhibition, despite its popularity, was not devoid of its own embarrassing dramas and potential scandals. A private firm of contractors, with uncomfortably close connections in high places, put up much of the original financing and was originally designated to organise the entire enterprise. When the exhibition commissioners decided to end the contract, the costly legal ramifications dragged on for months, but received little press coverage. Moreover, although the Crystal Palace was undoubtedly a fine building, a way was never found to make it completely watertight, and several exhibitors had to be compensated for damage to their goods.

While its opening ceremony went off better than the Dome's, the closure was a terrible flop, the speakers barely audible. A couple of statues were vandalised by enraged visitors. Imagine the "fiasco" and "chaos" headlines, along with demands for grovelling apologies, that such setbacks and security lapses would provoke in today's "say sorry" culture. As it was, they warranted only a few of the thousands of column inches that the press devoted to the Crystal Palace and its wonders.

This year's show still has a few days to run. Try to get to it if you are interested in the confusing ways in which British society seeks to make sense of itself at the start of the new millennium. And if you are stuck for last-minute Christmas presents, the shops have some formidable bargains (or they did last month): two sweatshirts for just £4.99; large models of the Dome - sublimely kitsch - down from £55 to £14.99. And everything must go because, come 31 December, the carpers won't have the Dome to kick around any more.

Michael Leapman's book about the Great Exhibition, The World for a Shilling, will be published by Headline on 5 April