The Labour government in Britain has decided that the Millennium Exhibition planned for a reclaimed site lying across the Meridian at Greenwich (under a huge domed structure designed by Richard Rogers), should go ahead but be renamed the “Millennium Experience” as part of a fundamental reshaping of its purpose and style.
Many people in the exhibition business hooted in derision at this decision, because experience in this sense has become a cliché of the business in recent years, to the extent that it is now regarded as “downmarket and dispiriting”, to quote one practitioner I discussed it with. It is a sad nadir in the long history of an interesting word.
Experience started life in the fourteenth century or thereabouts with the sense of “the action of putting something to the test” which reflects its origins in the Latin verb experiri that was formed from ex-, “out”, and an old root meaning “attempt, trial” that also turns up in English words such as empirical. It’s closely related to experiment, which preserves another of its early meanings, “the observation of events or phenomena to generate knowledge about them”. From there, the sense developed of “the condition of having been affected in some way by what one has observed”, which is the core of the modern meaning.
In the past couple of decades, the word has been adopted by developers of public visitor attractions as a title of desperation for various kinds of high-tech displays which don’t fit any of the more traditional terms like museum, exhibition, or gallery. They frequently include reconstructed scenes, brought alive by a combination of lighting, sound, and even smells, sometimes which the visitor travels though in a vehicle to the accompaniment of narration.
These days, you can almost navigate Britain from Experience to Experience, starting at the White Cliffs Experience at Dover, passing by the Tower Bridge Experience in London and the Annie McLeod Experience at New Lanark near Glasgow and ending at The Aros Experience, a visitor centre on the Isle of Skye. So far we have been spared the “Heritage Experience” or, worse still, the “Heritage Experience Centre”, to add in another couple of banal terms that regularly turn up in titles, but it’s probably only a matter of time.
The decision to use such a uninspiring title for the event that will mark the Millennium suggests a lack of imagination which doesn’t raise one’s hopes for it, beautiful dome or not.