In Tony's Dome: It's education, education and not much fun

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The Independent Online
I HAVE seen the future, and it's remarkably like the past.

Who'd have thought it? The Dome, for all the hi-tech hype, is not state of the art; it is not trendy; it is, for better or worse, most certainly not Disneyland.

It is Didactic with a capital D. And it is also remarkably and unfashionably wholesome. For me it brought back from the deep recesses of childhood memory a long-forgotten annual institution - the Schoolboys' Exhibition (later re-named the Boys' and Girls' Exhibition) - which used to take place at Earl's Court and Olympia. There every exhibit was to teach, rather than entertain.

And so with the Dome. No satirist of political correctness could have dreamt up the exit to the community-exploring Shared Ground zone, where you depart only after a quiz about active citizenship.

Where there is fun, it is of a rather old-fashioned sort. A giant table- football machine in the Work Zone can keep 13 players per side occupied. But lest you forget you are reminded that you had your fun to demonstrate the virtues of teamwork.

The Dome is the children's section of the Science Museum writ very large, and at pounds 20 a ticket (pounds 57 for a family) rather expensive. Every zone has several lessons to teach. When Tony Blair spoke of education, education, education, it must have been the Dome to which he alluded. And, to be fair, there will be many who will give thanks for that. We already have entertainment theme parks in Britain; and Disneyland is a short hop away.

One thing the Dome gets right is the transport. The new North Greenwich station, on the Underground's Jubilee Line, is right outside Lord Rogers' vast tent structure with its yellow pylons inside and out. As you enter the Dome, staff say "Hi, I hope you have a nice time," a quaintly British attempt at the all American greeting.

The first spectacle that greets you is the Body Zone with its giant 27m high, 64m wide androgynous figure through which you can walk and explore the wonders of biology. The wonders were closed at yesterday's preview, but one could lean on the massage machine outside for a back rub, while the beneficial effects of massage and keeping fit were explained to you.

The red asphalt and concrete floor of the whole structure and the roof that is already a bit grimy give a slightly unglamorous feel, especially when combined with the smell of the McDonald's outlet near by.

But the well-trained staff smile, and the different zones await. The Work Zone explores the varying facets of employment and starts with a wall of yellow sticky notes from the New Millennium Experience Company office. The wall of yellow slips containing office trivia struck me as next year's Turner Prize winner; and they were to give a hint of much else in the Dome - surprisingly low-tech and informative in a very old- fashioned way.

Next door in the Faith Zone, where a written homage to the impact of Jesus of Nazareth showed that the Dome was doing its religious duty, the exhibits again showed a lack of imagination. What have all these zone designers been doing? Nine crystal Life Pillars contained small screens with domestic scenes from other religions; much of the other information, including sentences from Genesis, came in projections of words on the wall.

On to Living Planet, the only ride, and therefore, inevitably, the longest queue (the queues are tiny compared to most theme parks, but there were 14,000 visitors yesterday instead of 30,000). Here the Disney comparison is unavoidable as Disney has similar rides through natural phenomena, icebergs, volcanoes et al, though the backdrops for this one were extremely basic.

I learnt that we live in a planet of very small people as I had to slide down my seat to hear the headphones. This ride was once more a very British experience. "An alien might try to get aboard" the security man winkingly warned us. And all too predictably came a resting actress, a girl in an anorak demanding to get through and being chased by the security man. If this was an alien she had escaped from a student rag at a very small university. Costumes surely can't be that expensive in a budget of pounds 750m.

But amid the naffness and the all-too-basic designs that are likely to disappoint teenagers, there are moments that make you think and moments that are enjoyably diverting.

The Money Zone where you walk through a million pounds and then choose how to spend it and finally learn via interactive screens how you should have invested it, is quicker than reading the finance pages, even if again it's the sort of exhibit that a humourless headmaster might program.

The other big queues are for the Play Zone, though there is a commendable diversion in the queue, where a Dome staffer comes round with a machine which shows you on screen and allows you to take a sneak preview of the exhibits inside. The large interactive game "Catsndogs" has two teams trying to stop the dog attacking cats by waving small paddle-shaped devices at the screen.

But enough of this harmless fun. You are here to learn. Occasionally - but too occasionally - you learn something memorable. One of the most diverting and fascinating exhibits is the morphing machine in the Mind Zone, where you can change your picture on screen to see how you would look if you were the opposite sex, or another race, or several decades older. The results are shown on screens outside as well to general amusement.

It was revealed yesterday that the BBC would like to buy the Dome eventually to turn it into a television theme park. Part of the job appears to have been done for them. In the baby Dome, or Skyscape as it is now called, are showings of a specially made episode of Blackadder. Michael Grade, who oversaw the design of the Dome's attractions, says it is "the funniest thing you will see on screen". Has he not seen the BBC documentary with Peter Mandelson saying how life-changing the Dome will be?

Inside the Dome three times a day there is a stage show in the central arena. They performed part of it yesterday, a kind of aerial ballet, a love story with several didactic elements to a Peter Gabriel soundtrack. It had some eye-catching acrobatics and trapeze artists.

I'm loath to knock an experience that cannot fail to add something to the knowledge of every visitor. But the hype and the cost of the project made one hope for the experience of a lifetime, sights, sounds and effects that were unforgettable. That hope is not fulfilled. Perhaps the Body Zone, when it is open, with the adrenalin rush of the Heart Room, will provide something more memorable.

At the end of the day I was left thinking what I thought when I heard it was costingpounds 750m. Is it worth it? It's a mildly interesting day out in a not very alluring, and often not very sophisticated, environment. Unlike with Disney or the Science Museum, I have no great desire to go again.

John Walsh, page 20