Magazine article The Spectator

What Price the Dome?

Magazine article The Spectator

What Price the Dome?

Article excerpt

What price the Dome? Jane Ridley T14E WORLD FOR A SHILLING by Michael Leapman Headline, L14.99, pp. 227, ISBN 0747270120

The success story of the Great Exhibition of 1851 should make the government squirm. The Crystal Palace was open for five and a half months, and it attracted six million visitors, averaging 50,000 daily. The Millennium Dome was open for 12 months, and the visitor target, after repeated downward revisions, was a mere 4.5 million, with daily attendance figures as low as 10,000. How did the Victorians manage to pull it off with such flair when New Labour failed so disgracefully?

`If I had my time again,' Tony Blair declared in September, 'I would have listened to those who said governments shouldn't try to run big visitor attractions.' Michael Leapman's admirable account of the Great Exhibition shows that he should have listened to the historians too. In 1851 the politicians kept out of things. Prince Albert played the role of chairman and figurehead, but the Exhibition was the brainchild of Henry Cole, an energetic Victorian polymath who left school at 15. Cole dreamed up the idea of an international exhibition to celebrate Free Trade and industry. The decision not to ask parliament for money but to raise funds through public subscription was crucial. It meant that right from the start the people had 'ownership' in a way they never did of the Dome.

The Exhibition Commissioners were not afraid to take risks. Instead of placing the Exhibition on a remote marsh like Greenwich, they plonked it down in Hyde Park, plumb in the middle of fashionable London. Of course, the well-heeled residents of genteel Belgravia objected. But the Commission took no notice. To his credit, Prince Albert refused to be panicked by dire warnings about mob riots, assassins, plagues and revolution. The Commission took a risk with the design as well. At the last minute they junked the boring brick building they had commissioned from Brunel, and accepted a design submitted after the closing date by an outsider. Joseph Paxton, gardener to the Duke of Devonshire, used his experience of building greenhouses to create a giant prefabricated iron-framed glasshouse which was tall enough to enclose the famous elms.

The opening ceremony by the Queen was originally intended to be private, but when the press objected the Commission opened it to the paying public. …

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