Thought to be the first of its kind in the world, the Biorama Real Lives Centre is expected to attract hundreds of thousands of visitors a year when it opens in the second year of the new millennium. The centre will tell the stories of the lives of people from William Shakespeare to Marilyn Monroe.
Talks begin tomorrow to secure funding for the centre, which would need around pounds 17.5m to get started. The project has already secured feasibility study money from the Arts Council. One possibility would be a large lottery grant.
Since the time of Dr Johnson, biography has been one of Britain's distinctive contributions to modern culture. The object is to maintain that leading position. The Biorama's director, Professor Nigel Hamilton, biographer of Field Marshal Montgomery, President Kennedy and Jawaharlal Nehru, has had the proposals sent to Tony Blair. He hopes the Prime Minister's intervention will accelerate the project and enable exhibits to be displayed in the Millennium Dome in Greenwich as a showpiece of British design. He has also sent details to Peter Mandelson, the minister charged with getting the Dome off the ground.
"We want this to be a people's palace, somewhere where you go to find out about celebrities but also where you can learn about the art of biography by talking to people and telling the story of your life," said Professor Hamilton.
The focal point of the people's palace will be a special exhibition dedicated to the People's Princess, Diana, Princess of Wales. The new centre will contain a special gallery to celebrate the Princess's life, updating it regularly with details of the work being done by her chosen charities with the money donated since her death.
"It seems fatuous that people are casting around for a memorial and talking about marble statues as though we were still in the 19th century or the Renaissance," says Professor Hamilton, who teaches at Royal Holloway College, part of London University. "I think the appropriate way to remember her life is to have a multi-media exhibition which people can interact with. That can't be done with a marble statue."
The Biorama's permanent home will be on a five-acre site at Royal Holloway College in Egham, Surrey. As well as the exhibition centre, there will be theatres for staging events, a research centre containing 24 fellows, and an education centre which will hook every school into the biographical material.
Among those supporting the proposals are Michael Holroyd, biographer of Lytton Strachey and George Bernard Shaw, and Lady Antonia Fraser, whose volumes on Mary Queen of Scots and Cromwell were warmly received.
"I think this is genuinely exciting," said Mr Holroyd. "It's full of originality. We already have the National Portrait Gallery and the Dictionary of National Biography, but we have nothing new to take account of broadcasting and the new technologies. This will do so."
Lady Antonia Fraser said: "Authors are missing out on lottery money. This is a way to help them without giving money to individual authors, which is always controversial and difficult."
Visitors will enter the Hall of Life containing giant glass panels on which are etched the figures of ordinary people as well as Charlie Chaplin, Mother Teresa and Queen Victoria. Behind this, colour film of 150 people will be projected onto a layer of waving gauze. Recordings of voices will give a murmuring background of human sound, while a series of exhibition showcases will show artefacts from the lives of prominent figures who are celebrating anniversaries.
A spokesman for the New Millennium Experience Company said it was considering the idea of situating the Biorama exhibition in the Dome. "An idea like this would be of interest to us," he explained. "If it fulfils the criteria of being fun, educative and entertaining, as well as leaving some enduring legacy, then it stands a good chance."
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