Mention the ill-fated “Millennium Dome” to almost any citizen of Great Britain and you’ll get an earful about one of the most scandal-ridden, tourist-trap fiascos of all time. Costing the British government more than a billion dollars, it was a white elephant that bled red ink from its public opening on New Year’s Day 2000 until it closed a year later.
The Millennium Dome’s colossal flop prompted Prime Minister Tony Blair to remark, “If I had my time again, I would have listened to those who said governments shouldn’t try to run big visitor attractions.”
Michiganians have learned this painful lesson. Flint’s “AutoWorld,” built in 1984 only to close two years later due to lack of interest, serves as our state’s poster child for subsidized failures. More recently, plans in Kalamazoo for a tax-funded “Legacy of Flight” museum never got off the ground in part because people remembered the lesson of AutoWorld.
Britain’s Dome was intended in part to rival a famous project of a century-and-a-half earlier. But, for reasons that will become obvious, it never came close. What happened in 1851 was a spectacular tribute to the enterprising spirit of that day.
By the middle of the 19th Century, Britain’s increasingly free economy was the industrial “workshop of the world,” producing more than half of all coal, iron and cotton cloth. It was time to celebrate not only Britain’s remarkable achievements, but also those of free trade and free enterprise the world over.
Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, felt that Britain should host a fair to showcase the industrial and inventive genius of every country. In January 1850, Victoria named Albert to head a 24-man Royal Commission to make the “Great Exhibition of the Industries of All Nations” a reality.
Prince Albert declared that the Exhibition should not and would not be government-funded. This was to be a celebration of private enterprise, and it seemed only logical for private, enterprising citizens to foot the bill. The Millennium Dome of 2000, by contrast, was a giant public works scheme from its inception — filled with uninspiring, politically correct and just plain boring displays.
The 1851 project was in danger of foundering amid designs deemed too costly when entrepreneur Joseph Paxton came forth with plans for a monster edifice made entirely of glass panes (nearly a quarter-million of them) and the supporting iron framework. Thanks to the repeal in 1845 of Britain’s longstanding and onerous “window tax,” the price of glass had fallen by 80 percent, making Paxton’s design affordable.
When the “Crystal Palace” opened in London’s Hyde Park on May 1, 1851, its sheer immensity made for a grand show: 1,851 feet long (to fit the year), 408 feet wide, and 108 feet high at the entrance. It was built to accommodate 60,000 people at one time, in addition to nearly 14,000 exhibits. Michael Leapman, author of “The World for a Shilling: How the Great Exhibition of 1851 Shaped a Nation,” calls it “the first mass spectacle that appealed to almost every social class.”
For a visitor to give every exhibit the attention it deserved would have required 200 hours in the building. There were a 40-foot scale model of the Liverpool docks, complete with 1,600 meticulously accurate miniature ships; sophisticated threshing machines and other labor-saving farm equipment; a knife with 1,851 blades; exotic fabrics and furnishings, looms, sewing machines and even a prototype submarine; gas cookery, electric clocks, and one of the earliest versions of a washing machine. It even boasted “a piano that could be played by four people at once and a violin and piano joined in such a way that a single musician could play them both at the same time on a single keyboard.”
When the Exhibition closed on Oct. 18 after five-and-a-half months, more than 6 million people had visited it — almost the same number who visited the Millennium Dome over a 12-month period 150 years later. Unlike the Dome of 2000, the unsubsidized Crystal Palace of 1851 produced a financial surplus.
It passed the test of the market because its organizers had their ears to the ground instead of their hands in the taxpayer’s pockets.
(Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. More information is available at www.mackinac.org. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliation are cited.)