Pop museum too posh for Spice Girls

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The Independent Online
TWO GIANTS of popular music are to clash this spring in a struggle to secure the affections of British rock fans. But it is not a contest that will take place on stage. Instead, the battle for public approval will be fought out between the brand new National Centre for Popular Music and London's freshly refurbished Rock Circus.

The success of both multi-million-pound ventures over the next 12 months will rest upon their ability to draw in thousands of punters, yet the teams working on the two projects have gambled on entirely different strategies.

In the North, the newcomer, the National Centre, is housed in a building designed by the controversial architect Nigel Coates. Located near Sheffield's railway station, the stainless steel building has been part-financed by pounds 9.5m of lottery cash. The self-consciously modern project, due to open on 1 March, has deliberately set out to blur the distinction between all forms of popular music.

Curators at the centre have turned up their noses at the idea of showing items of rock memorabilia, it has emerged. In place of the glass-case approach of traditional museums, the centre has spent its pounds 15m budget on information technology, video and laser discs and the first three-dimensional surround-sound auditorium. It will focus mainly on music created since 1945.

Tim Strickland, the creative director at the centre, has promised an early exhibition on the changing form of sound systems, with displays of wax cylinders and jukeboxes leading up to the latest digital technology.

Hagiographies of big stars such as the Beatles, or even of native Sheffield performers such as Def Leppard and Joe Cocker, have been eschewed. Mr Strickland says he will consider tackling that kind of subject only if he can find "an alternative angle". He hopes his hi-tech approach will attract 400,000 visitors a year.

Rock Circus, in contrast, has taken an entirely different tack. Owned by Madame Tussauds and already the country's leading pop music-based attraction, its team of revampers has had no hesitation about going straight for nostalgia. Due to reopen in mid-March, the circus is in Piccadilly and was attracting a healthy 700,000 visitors a year when it closed for its pounds 4m makeover. It was originally opened in 1989 by Jason Donovan - a fact which itself speaks volumes about the need to keep renewing pop iconography - and it featured a series of wax models of popular music's celebrities, along with an assortment of memorabilia which included the Beatles' suits from A Hard Day's Night and an Elton John stage outfit from 1973.

According to Rock Circus's PR manager, Diane Moon, the venue's reincarnation will offer some of the experiences associated with rock stardom. There will not be an opportunity to overdose, or to drive a limo into a swimming pool, but there will be a virtual reality simulation of the view from the concert stage at Wembley and a chance to stand around with waxworks of Pulp's frontman Jarvis Cocker and friends at a typical backstage, "access all areas" party. Tickets will cost pounds 8.25 for adults and pounds 6.25 for children.

So while Jarvis Cocker will make an appearance in Piccadilly, he will be notably absent from the National Centre for Popular Music in Pulp's home town of Sheffield. It is the kind of omission that has already alienated some of the centre's near-neighbours.

"The direction they are taking is quite disappointing," said Eliot Kennedy, a record producer who has worked with the Spice Girls. "The centre was such a great idea and I know there was a lot of enthusiasm at first from local bands like the Human League and Babybird.

"The centre was offered lots of memorabilia, but they don't seem to have been that interested. "I myself offered them the original lyrics to the Spice Girls' Say You'll Be There but they never got back to me. I know pop music is not about museums, but I believe fans still like to see these things."