The Full Sheffield: Gallery of sounds

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David Wilson previews the National Centre for Popular Music in Sheffield, a Lottery-funded project devoted to `the most popular art form in the world'.

Hip-hop, trip-hop, ambient, house, garage, big beat, breakbeat, rap: pop, it seems, is constantly expanding. So the plan to establish the world's first centre for popular music, in Sheffield, may seem ambitious. Three years ago, while the centre's future was still uncertain, the Arts Council finally recognised pop as an art form. This allowed the organisers to apply for and win an pounds 11m Lottery grant.

"We were ecstatic," says Tim Strickland, creative director. "And relieved, for an hour, then it finally sank in - the thought of the enormous amount of work ahead."

Regardless, the National Centre for Popular Music is well on its way and should open this year. Sheffield is a fitting location because it has an impressive music heritage (Human League, Baby Bird, Pulp), some architectural grace, and a lively entertainment scene. In a word, it's hip.

The centre is still under construction but already looks extraordinary. It comprises four vertical cylinders, aptly made from Sheffield steel. One cylinder is intended as a soundscape auditorium with 200 seats, dedicated to a 3D sound experience of remarkable purity. The second will relate the history of popular music and explain how it affects our lives, focusing on landmarks such as Band Aid. The third will concentrate on the science of mixing music, and the fourth will stage visiting exhibitions and other events such as record fairs and fan-club conventions.

Martyn Ware, a member of the techno godfathers Heaven 17, and a producer of artists including Tina Turner and Erasure, says: "It's a fantastic idea. A centre that appreciates and celebrates the most popular art form in the world today has long been overdue. It will allow everyone access to an unprecedented depth and breadth of information about popular music."

Everyone will be able to get at least a taste of the sounds on offer. It will be possible to walk in from the street and experience some outer installations for free. Throughout, the environment is designed to meet the needs of all visitors, including those with mobility, sensory and learning impairment.

Chief executive Stuart Rogers stresses that the venture will have a rumbustious side: "We are keen to preserve the outrage of pop because that's always been a part of it, ever since Elvis."

This should convince most groups that inclusion is an accolade, rather than the kiss of death.

"We are at pains to balance out the Anglo-American bias in pop music," Rogers adds. "Modern ambient uses lots of styles of music from different cultures - or, if you look at reggae, it has permeated a whole range of styles, including rap, which is seen as American, whereas in fact it's Jamaican."

In the light of the British Tourist Authority's Rock & Pop Map of Britain, published this week (free from travel information centres, or call 01271 336083), the centre looks set to become an instant hit: at least 2,000 visitors a day are anticipated once it is established.

For more information, call 0114-279 8941 or visit the website at