McGuigan, J. (2003) 'The social construction of a cultural disaster: New Labour's Millennium Experience', in Cultural Studies, Vol 17, No 5: 669 - 90.
This is part of a larger study, to be reported in various other articles [shows the effect of the RAE?].
The rise and fall of the Millennium Dome was the biggest news story of 2000, but we need 'multidimensional cultural analysis', to get to grips with it and avoid superficiality. The Dome rapidly became heartily disliked by journalists across the political spectrum, and soon became 'inextricably bound up with the pretensions of the New Labour government elected to office in May 1997' (670), even though it was the Conservatives who initiated the project. The Dome turned out to be a 'huge and continuing embarrassment long after closure' (671). The proposed analysis will examine the role of sponsorship in the 'social production, representation and consumption of the Millennium Dome' (671). [The work on Sony by duGay et al is specifically recommended as a model, page 678, although McGuigan does not pursue the issue of articulation but offers merely analyses in different dimensions].
The original slogan for the Dome involved an invitation to 'one amazing day'. Prime Minister Blair took up the theme in several enthusiastic speeches, involving 'the spirit of confidence and adventure in Britain and the spirit of the future in the world... a huge opportunity for Britain... it will be the envy of the world' (quoted on page 671). Blair had apparently insisted that the project should inspire people, have 'national reach', display first-class management without requiring public money, and provide a 'lasting legacy'. It would 'unite the nation. It will be a meeting point of people from all backgrounds' (Blair speech quoted on page 672). It was to be particularly educative for children 'a would-be Foucaldian impact on the conduct of conduct' (672).
The building itself was impressive and massive, although it did not dominate the cityscape. The project was financed largely from the National Lottery's Millennium Commission, perhaps after personal backing from Michael Heseltine [a then influential Conservative politician and member of the Commission]. He wanted to regenerate the Greenwich area, and demonstrate the excellence of UK companies, especially the City of London (673). Companies were to enter into partnership with the government [ a familiar policy now, of course]. The actual body to run the project was 'a curious hybrid of a limited company and a "non-departmental public body"' (673) -- the New Millennium Experience Company (NMEC).
The minister responsible was the notorious Peter Mandelson who 'immediately started spinning on behalf of the Dome' (673) [and some examples of his ludicrous talking up are provided -- however, I'm not sure I want to accept that his spin is any different from Blair's posturing stuff]. Mandelson introduced 'continuous and interweaving story lines [which] were distinctly soap operatic' (674). He had visited Disney World for inspiration.
Lottery funding was initially £200 million, but this was rapidly increased to £450 million, and then £628 million. An additional £200 million taxpayers' money was also spent in acquiring the site. There was also corporate sponsorship, but to a much lesser extent.
The opening night was a disaster as journalists and elite guests were delayed by security checks. Journalists found the exhibitions inside the Dome uninspiring and culturally disastrous. Press stories focused on the relatively poor visitor numbers and the costs. NMEC was 'virtually bankrupt' by the end of the first month (675), and required a series of additional payments from the Lottery over the months. There were also management crises and frequent resignations.
Blair tried to insist that the disaster was due to inadequate management, and this helped develop the 'managerial paradigm' to explain the disaster. The sponsors insisted on the sacking of the chief executive officer and her replacement by a former vice-president of Disneyland Paris as a turnaround man. He brought with him the managerialist philosophy 'of customer service and flat organisational structure' (676). He redefined sponsors as 'partners' (676) and permitted much more company promotion and logo display. Sponsors had long penetrated the Dome, however, especially McDonald's who not only provided restaurants but sponsored one of the shows -- Our Town Stage where various children performed in turn. This helped them make contact with schools (677). It is doubtful whether any managerialist philosophy or skill could overcome the scepticism, however.
Other forms of critique were also common, including journalistic and political ones. There are however, 'multiple determinations and agencies... [requiring]... diverse kinds of cultural analysis' (677). The key elements are 'corporate sponsorship... [and] ...the ideological features of the Dome's representational elements... related to its social democratic inflection of neo-liberalism' (678). There was also some analysis of the visitors' reactions [at last!].
Sponsorship only provided less than one-fifth of the total, yet corporate sponsors played a major role. They were allowed to develop particular thematic zones, although some zones failed to attract any sponsorship -- in the case of the Play Zone, it 'lost its sponsor, BSkyB, because it was not designed to publicise that company's products' (678). Sponsors developed commercial promotion more explicitly in some zones than others -- Ford's Journey Zone was completely developed by the company in-house with minimal interference, despite the provision of a regulating group 'of luminaries from the entertainment industry to advise on the representational aspects of the exhibition' (679). Some critics clearly saw the whole thing as promotional, but there are some variations -- the pharmaceutical company Boots clearly had an interest in sponsoring the Body Zone, but BAe Systems sponsored the Mind Zone which appeared to have no connection at all with arms. However, the company might have had an ulterior motive to influence government policy, especially foreign policy, which at one stage was threatening to restrict arms sales. The Hinduja brothers' sponsorship of the Faith Zone clearly delivered a favour in return [Mandelson tried to facilitate their application for British passports], and the press did get that one. However, the Work Zone's sponsor (Manpower) also went on to win lucrative contracts for the management of employment zones; Tesco, who sponsored the Learning Zone, benefited by the government withdrawing a proposal to tax out-of-town car-parking; British Airways, who sponsored Home Planet, gained permission to build a new terminal at Heathrow; Camelot (Shared Ground) unexpectedly had its licence to run the National Lottery renewed; BSkyB (Skyscape) benefited from subsequent policy on broadcasting and digitalisation. 'It may all just be coincidence' (680).
Sponsors also helped to construct the meaning of the displays and exhibitions, as ideological representation [Thompson's work is cited here]. The argument is in particular that no alternative views apart from corporate ones were on offer in the exhibitions, despite the substantial element of public funding. The corporate agenda was not always very prominent, and was probably entirely absent in the live performance Millennium Show. Manpower's exhibition was 'crudely propagandistic for both the agency and government policy on vocational training' (681), [this is later called 'associative sponsorship'] with visitors beeing lectured on the need to be flexible. For BAe and the Mind Zone, the ideological effect was ['deep sponsorship'] : 'dissimulation in that the arms industry was displaced ostensibly from its focal concerns. Instead of representing technologies of warfare, the emphasis was on communications and the networking principle... euphemism is commonly used in discourses of war and this was replete' (681). Certainly, there was no critical material on military conflict or high tech developments. This was an attempt 'to actually construct culture in the interests of corporate business' (682) [another example cited is Disney and the construction of children's culture]. The City of London's Money Zone was 'the most patronising of all' [I couldn't agree more -- see my memories and recollections].
Curiously though, despite Government emphasis, 'the Dome generally failed to articulate an exciting new world order' (683) [well, you wouldn't expect corporations to be able to do this really: as Marx once insisted, only the proletariat can conceive of a future]. Ford did at least present a distorted history of transport technologies, all of which led up to their new vehicle as the pinnacleof progress, but which encouraged visitors to 'choose'..
Deep sponsorship was justified by the rhetoric of sponsorship and partnership, and no one seemed to insist that the public money was also used to influence the cultural work in the public interest. There were tensions, as absent sponsorship and varieties of sponsorship indicates. Marks and Spencer's Self Portrait Zone even allowed some debates about British identity [by including different representations of it, some of them critical]. The Millennium Show apparently 'told an allegorical love-story linked to the emergence, destructiveness and collapse of industrialism', and had no sponsor (684). Yet it might have been the only exhibit that had any kind of educative function because it trained some children to be circus performers.
Visitor experience also needs to be examined. 6.5 million visitors attended, and most of those who did said they liked it and recorded high approval ratings. NMEC itself operated with a crude and stereotyped typology of visitors 'as "divers", "swimmers" and "paddlers"' (685) according to how they managed to cope with the attractions. McGuigan's own typology turns on the extent to which visitors displayed 'generosity and reflexivity' (685) and combinations of them. 'Visitors to the Dome were typically found to be generous in their orientation, willing to give the benefit of the doubt and keen to make the best of what was on offer' (685), especially one family who had to travel miles and spent a fortune to get there. Visitors were well aware of the controversies, and generally more favourably impressed than they expected. They did not complain about sponsorship, perhaps because they 'simply take the logoscape for granted' (686). Approval tended to be directed at the overall experience rather than at particular elements. The generosity of the visitors had more impact than the determination of the sponsors to 'have their pound of flesh' (686).
Thus, in conclusion, corporate sponsorship played a major role in the cultural disaster, with corporations' ideological influence far exceeding their financial contribution. Britain was represented 'as a nation of corporations instead of a democratic people engaged in debate' (687). The building and site were finally literally given away to a consortium formed by American and Australian corporations. Visitors seemed able to be generous but unreflexive, indicating that 'there is little mass-popular resistance' to corporate ideology, and no support for in neoliberalism. The exhibition indicates 'cultural policy as display... nationalistic hubris... failure to articulate a sufficiently multicultural Britishness... corporate violation of publicly-funded culture... an incoherent vehicle for old delusions of national grandeur allied to corporate power in a neo-liberal world' (687). It classically represented New Labour and the 'Third Way': described, by Anderson, as 'the best ideological shell of neo-liberalism today' (688). [Very strong stuff after all the allegedly careful and deep multi-dimensional analysis!]
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