The seed of an idea that never germinated
Sep 10 2005 Rhodri Clark, Western Mail
Mid Wales is to lose one of its ambitious tourist attractions after its funding was pulled this week. Rhodri Clark explains why he always thought the project was doomed
THE decision by Powys County Council to close Celtica in Machynlleth is a shame. There was the seed of a great idea in Celtica, but sadly it never germinated.
The venture was announced by some excited men in suits at a press conference more than a decade ago. I covered the event for the Western Mail and remember puncturing the euphoria with a question about the number of original Celtic artefacts to be displayed at the new centre, pictured right. None, was the answer.
The promoters set great store by the fact that Celtica was designed by the man responsible for the successful Jorvik Viking centre in York. But at Jorvik the hi-tech gadgetry is the icing on an historic cake, not the cake itself.
Visitors take a slow funfair-type ride around the actual foundations of Viking buildings, learning as they go about Viking history and the story of the foundations' discovery and conservation. At the end there's a fascinating museum packed with (hornless) helmets, coins and games found at the site.
The officials behind the Celtica concept, mainly councillors and officers of Montgomeryshire District Council, chose not to see the difference.
After the press conference, where I also had the temerity to ask if Machynlleth had enough tourists to make Celtica viable, I was asked to provide positive coverage, as if the headline would make or break it.
I visited Celtica soon after it opened in 1995, with what I hope was an open mind. Visitors walked from room to room to see dioramas of different aspects of Celtic life. At the end there was a video, which included footage of children at the Urdd Eisteddfod and views from an aircraft swooping over Snowdonia, to the rather banal backing of Dafydd Iwan singing Ry'n ni yma o hyd (We're still here).
Some of the information at the diorama stage was interesting . But overall I was left with a sense that Celtica was too focused on Welsh identity, rather than putting Wales in its international historic context.
The most interesting exhibit in Celtica was a book fixed to a shelf, which did explain about Celts internationally. But visitors weren't paying the admission fee to read a book.
Celtica might have worked had it either been in an area of mass tourism or held some genuine Celtic treasures, which would have enticed people off the beaten track.
There was great potential in the concept of a centre devoted to Celtic culture and history. It could have featured interactive displays showing how Celtic artists used symbolism, perhaps with a facility for kids and big kids to compile their own Celtic images on a computer.
There could have been displays to show how Celts across Europe influenced modern-day European and other languages, place names and cultures.
Imaginative features on the contribution of the Celtic diaspora to the US and other countries could have pulled in the expats, including perhaps the lucrative Irish-American trade.
I can't say, "I told you so" now that Celtica is to close in March 2006. I didn't expect it to last this long.
Its longevity is not down to success, however. It needed 90,000 visitors in its first year, rising to 110,000, but the most it ever received in a year was 34,000. It has always operated at a loss.
The main lesson to be drawn from the venture is that local authorities aren't very good at establishing tourism and leisure attractions. Montgomeryshire isn't the only culprit. Huge debts were run up in the mid-1990s on ill-conceived upgrades to the seafronts at Rhyl and Prestatyn, for example.
To see how it can be done, you only need to take the short trip to Corris, where an entrepreneur has set up a tour of an abandoned slate mine.
Instead of telling the history of slate mining, King Arthur's Labyrinth presents bits of the Arthurian legends in an unusual, entertaining way. The kids love it, and it's a fair bet the Americans do, too.
King Arthur's Labyrinth was made on a shoestring, compared with the millions spent on Celtica, but the concept was sound and every penny is made to work.