The Eden Project

Should suppliers join the politicians in building follies?

By: SA Mathieson
Published: Tuesday, September 16, 2014 - 08:07 GMT Jump to Comments

Britain has a habit of funding new museums and attractions, when it would often do better to support and renovate existing ones.

Tomorrow may reveal the political folly of the leaders of the United Kingdom, in not offering a middle-way enhanced devolution option in the Scottish referendum, or in not pushing the case for a no vote until the campaign's final fortnight. The following months and years may reveal the folly of Scotland’s leaders in adopting a highly optimistic projection of their country under independence, if it doesn’t quite work out that way.

For today, it is enough to note that politicians have a talent for follies. In Sheffield, you can see evidence on Paternoster Row, in the shape of Sheffield Hallam University’s spectacular students’ union building, formed of four huge steel circles. It almost looks like a giant drum-kit, and that is no accident.

The building was designed to house the National Centre for Popular Music at a cost of £15m, including £11m from the National Lottery. It opened in March 1999, and closed just over a year later. Sheffield Hallam University bought it for just £1.85m in 2003.

A nation that supports museums devoted to pencils (Keswick in the Lake District) and submarine telegraphy (Porthcurno in Cornwall) should be able to support one about pop music. But it already did, in the shape of The Beatles Story and other attractions in Liverpool. That city would have been the obvious place for a national pop centre, but it went instead to Sheffield. While the city can boast ABC and Pulp, no-one gets close to the Fab Four.

Sheffield’s pop museum focused mainly on interactive exhibits rather than memorabilia. But to some extent, museums are memorabilia. The Pencil Museum has the world’s first pencil, the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum is the site of what was the world’s largest submarine telegraphy station… and the Beatles Story has John Lennon’s glasses. Although the Sheffield centre had Martin Fry from ABC’s gold lamé suit, it may not have quite had the same appeal.

The turn of the century also saw the opening of the Millennium Dome in London and the Eden Project in Cornwall, both with the aid of a lot of public and lottery money. The underperformance of the Dome was an early cause of disillusionment with the New Labour government. While the Eden Project is still reasonably successful, visitor numbers dipped by 10% in 2013.

Museums inhabit a mixed economy, with plenty of existing public establishments, and private and charitable sectors that are perfectly capable of creating new attractions. The most cost-effective use of public money would be to maintain and in some cases consolidate existing ones. But there are fewer tape-cutting ceremonies in keeping things going.

Suppliers can take a cynical view of this, by bidding to help build new publicly-funded attractions, then avoiding long-term service contracts – or at least ensuring they have strong cancellation clauses. But a better option is to help renovate something that already works, such as the British Museum, which in 2013 had 6.7m visitors, up a third in the last decade.

Scots willing, such renovations might also be the best thing for Britain itself.

Sheffield steels itself for pop centre (BBC, February 1999)

Ex-pop centre prepares for students (BBC, July 2003)

Association of Leading Visitor Attraction visitor figures for 2013

Multi-million pound boost will help to bring history to life (The Information Daily, July 2012)

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Information Daily, its parent company or any associated businesses.

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