The Big Idea: Scotland’s millennium project doomed to fail

Floating wings in the Big Idea Centre. Picture: Ben Cooper
Floating wings in the Big Idea Centre. Picture: Ben Cooper
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Tucked down at the end of the Ardeer peninsula in North Ayrshire, the Big Idea Centre was an interactive museum – a Millennium Project.

Unofficially dubbed ‘the Museum of Scottish Invention’, the centre opened to much fanfare on April 15, 2000, at a cost of £14 million.

The Big Idea Centre. Picture: Ben Cooper.

The Big Idea Centre. Picture: Ben Cooper.

The project was created with the help of £5.5million from the Millennium Commission, £5m of European funding, £500,000 from Scottish Enterprise and £3million of private money.

It had capital funding for construction but no ongoing support and was expected to make all it’s money from visitors.

That never happened – 120,000 visitors in the first year, 50,000 in the second were never going to keep the place running, and the much larger Glasgow Science Centre killed it off – it’s been closed since 2003.

The centre was dedicated to Scottish inventions and inventors and housed on the impressive earth-covered building built on the site of Alfred Nobel’s former dynamite factory.

A model of a Nitroglycerine plant. Picture: Ben Cooper

A model of a Nitroglycerine plant. Picture: Ben Cooper

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The Big Idea was hailed by its creators as a “living laboratory for people who wish to think, to dream, to discover, to innovate and to invent”.

John Moorhouse, who was chairman of the centre, said at the time it had set out to prove a science centre could operate without ongoing public funding - unlike any other in the world.

However, admissions to the hi-tech centre, where visitors use personalised electronic tags to activate dozens of gizmos, plummeted after the first year.

The Nobel theatre. Picture: Ben Cooper

The Nobel theatre. Picture: Ben Cooper

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Unfortunately, the centre never managed to reach its target visitors - possibly due to its location - and was finally closed in September 2003, with reported debts of £350,000.

Speaking in 2000, one of the main architects on the project Ian Russell predicted the location may be a hindrance to the project, he said: “The Big Idea (cannot) be accused of commercialism. Its chosen location is not based on honey-pot economics. It is the site of Alfred Nobel’s dynamite factory and now benefits a community over 25 miles from Glasgow. This seems a brave risk and on-going repeat-visits will be crucial. Only time, and repeat visits, will tell.”

Speaking to the Scotsman in 2003, Mr Moorhouse acknowledged that the Big Idea’s location had been “absolutely critical”.

Chairs near the reception area of the Big Ideas Centre. Picture: Ben Cooper

Chairs near the reception area of the Big Ideas Centre. Picture: Ben Cooper

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He said he had learned from bitter experience that the centre could not survive without public subsidy:“I was determined to prove we could operate a science centre without public subsidy, but I failed. There is not a single science centre which operates without it.

“If it is important to Scotland to have such science centres, we will have to find a way of getting regular public subsidy, because we are all living on a knife edge.”

Today, the Big Idea Centre,is not an easy place to get to, you have to skirt past several miles of live explosive factory.

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Reception area of the Big Idea Centre. Picture: Ben Cooper

Reception area of the Big Idea Centre. Picture: Ben Cooper

There’s a footbridge which connects the centre to the mainland which visitors would have used for much easier access, but it’s been left open to allow shipping through.

There have been rumours since its closure of what the site could become, with a cinema, golf course and marina among the ideas talked about.

For more pictures and information on the site today, you can visit: http://catchingphotons.co.uk/blog/miscellaneous/the-big-idea/

Inventor's Bridge. Picture: Ben Cooper

Inventor's Bridge. Picture: Ben Cooper

A display at the museum. Picture: Ben Cooper

A display at the museum. Picture: Ben Cooper

Power display at the museum. Picture: Ben Cooper

Power display at the museum. Picture: Ben Cooper