National Identity, Popular Culture and Everyday Life

By Tim Edensor | Go to book overview

6
Exhibiting National Identity at the Turn of
the Millennium

‘Self-Portrait’ at the Millennium Dome

The Millennium Dome was the national flagship of the millennial celebrations in 2000. Designed to mark the year 2000, and simultaneously provide a celebratory assessment of the contemporary character of the nation, the project seemed to hark back to other grand projects, notably the Festival of Britain in 1950 and the Great Exhibition of 1851. However, the Dome was immediately and continuously surrounded by mockery and criticism, and, as the year went on, to increasing opprobrium. A momentum gathered which allowed few avenues for acclaiming the attraction. It became something of a byword for overweening ambition, and for the ineptitude and self-aggrandisement of the ministers who had so vigorously promoted it and continued to defend it.

This is not the place to go into an in-depth discussion about why the Millennium Dome proved such a fiasco; but a brief contextualisation is needed. The criticisms were fulsome, many arguing that the ensemble of contents in the Dome inevitably produced a senseless jumble of ideas. Others contended that the project should have resembled a conventional theme park. Many maintained that the money would have been better spent on more local, modest projects. And the content of the building, the ideas and displays, were surely compromised by the imperatives of the corporate sponsors, who tended to remove politically sensitive notions and foreground commercial messages about company virtues. There was, it was widely believed, a wholesale ‘dumbing down’ which resulted in a series of mediocre attractions.

My own opinion is that a grand project on a scale such as this is no longer feasible. Whilst previous exhibitions have managed to persuade most visitors that there was a coherent British national identity, widely recognisable if not shared by all, such an ambition is no longer possible because national identities are fragmenting, as I have tried to argue throughout this book. The elements of national identity, the familiar signifiers, rituals and fixtures, have not disappeared but have proliferated through popular culture and in the diversification of everyday lives. There could therefore, be no singular approach to a project like the Dome.

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