Total Production

A Legacy Unfolds - The British Music Experience

April 2009 Issue 116

March saw the opening of a new, permanent exhibition at London’s O2, dedicated to the history of British popular music and featuring a staggering audio-visual installation. Mark Cunningham caught a preview of the British Music Experience...

While hordes of fevered Michael Jackson fans waited patiently for their hero to arrive in the foyer of the O2 and (briefly) announce his forthcoming string of gigs, TPi was a brisk walk away in the O2 Bubble, catching a preview of the ultra high-tech British Music Experience (BME) — the world’s only fully interactive permanent exhibition dedicated to the history of post-WWII popular music in Britain.

    Officially opened on March 6 by the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, the BME has been administered as a charitable foundation and managed by an independent board of trustees, chaired by legendary promoter Harvey Goldsmith CBE who set the ball rolling five years ago, through conversations with AEG, the O2’s owners and source of the initial £9.5 million investment.

    This is not a UK Music Hall of Fame — that title is owned by Endemol who in 2004, you may remember, launched an annual awards show that lasted only three years and never got around to building a physical Hall of Fame attraction.

    Neither does the BME resemble anything like the failed National Centre for Popular Music, essentially a pop museum which opened in Sheffield in 1999 and closed 16 months later. This is on an entirely different level — and one that has success written all over it.

    Taking over the 22,000ft2 on the top floor of the O2 Bubble, the BME is not so much a museum as a journey that combines cutting edge AV technology and workshop facilities with one of the most fascinating music memorabilia collections ever placed before the public.

    Goldsmith, who is Chairman of the BME Trustees & Management Board, said: “When the O2 came about, with the realisation that you could build a large arena in the centre of what was the Dome and still have 660,000ft2 left to play with, the idea was borne of building an entertainment district around the arena. The O2 Bubble came from that and it seemed to be the right place for the BME.”

    The BME enables visitors to trace musical trends through the decades, learn about music’s influence on art, fashion and politics, allow visitors to download music from the BME archive, learn to play instruments in the Gibson Interactive Studio and record their own songs.

    There will also be a full public and educational programme with workshops, lectures, master-classes and concerts. On the two days that TPi attended previews, both The View and The Saturdays performed private sets.

    RFID technology is used throughout the exhibition. Traditional tickets are replaced by a Smarticket that allows visitors to activate interactive elements and register further interest in specific BME features.

    Visitors can then visit the official website at to access free downloads and further information on parts of the exhibition they want to learn more about.

Whilst predominantly an interactive exhibition there are fascinating showcases of domestic technologies such as ancient radios and music playback devices from all modern eras — from the humble Dansette, radiogram and Walkman all the way through to the iPod.

    Most impressive are the stunning examples of original memorabilia featured within the chronological ‘Edge Zones’ that span all genres of British popular music.

    They include guitars from the likes of Pete Townshend, Keith Richards, Bill Wyman, Marc Bolan, Paul Weller and Noel Gallagher, David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust costume, a Ringo Starr Beatle stage suit and Nick Mason’s ‘hammer’ drum kit from Pink Floyd’s The Wall concerts.

    Also featured are a hand-painted Small Faces bass drum from Kenney Jones, Roger Daltrey’s Woodstock outfit, a vintage Amy Winehouse dress and the Spice Girls’ outfits worn at the 1997 BRIT Awards.

    Bob Santelli, whose work has spanned the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and L.A.’s Grammy Museum, has overseen the curation of the project with assistance from the BME’s  curator Paul Lilley who joined AEG from The EMI Group Archive Trust.

    Said Lilley: “This incredible collection of instruments, stage costumes and memorablia on display couldn’t have been possible without the support of over 100 British artists themselves who have lent us artefacts worth around £5 million, many of which have never been seen before in public.”

    Other items have been loaned by the Victoria & Albert Museum. “There’s a poignancy to every item on display and everything has to tell a story,” continued Lilley. “I believe the oldest item is the trumpet played by Humphrey Lyttleton on VE Day in 1945. The newest is the dress worn by Estelle at last year’s MTV Awards.”

    According to Goldsmith, any income generated by the BME will be ploughed back into the exhibition and its education projects.

    “We need new, creative people to become part of the music business. And so alongside this experience being fun and interesting for fans who want to learn more about artists, we have a massive workshop programme which we hope will stimulate people to enjoy all facets of our industry, not just performance.”

    “It’s a cultural project that’s been delivered on a commercial timescale,” said Lilley. “The real work involved in collating artefacts, designing the exhibition space and the installation took a small team of people less than two years to complete, which is incredible.”

Goldsmith felt it was extremely important that the whole industry bought into the BME concept, however, he faced an uphill struggle due to the failure of the £15 million Sheffield project which was largely funded by the National Lottery.

    “The thing with Sheffield was that it by-passed the industry and as a result, nobody really understood what it was all about. For the BME to work, not only does the industry need to support it, but also utilise it and help to move it forward.

    “I believe this is the world’s first fully interactive museum, one that traces British music history from the end of the Second World War up to today. But it’s also dynamic in that it will carry on that story as new chapters evolve. We want to encourage a new stream of talent through the BME and hopefully dedicate new areas of the exhibition to those future stars.”

    Another element of the BME that will constantly evolve is the ‘Road Map’ — an interactive map of the UK with around 4,000 entries of facts and figures pertaining to locations of music history interest, for example, the Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim where the cover of Led Zeppelin’s Houses Of The Holy album was shot by Hipgnosis. Suggestions for further entries will be welcomed.

The BME Management Board includes representatives from every facet of the industry — from the BPI (Geoff Taylor) and the PRS (Emma Inston), to managers (Bill Curbishley and Paul Loasby) and concert promoters (Rob Hallett, AEG Live).

    Numerous music history brains were consulted to ensure factual accuracy, and Lilley singled out Rob Dickens and The Word editor Mark Ellen as “Human Googles”. Interesting then, that within just 10 minutes of touring the exhibition, TPi’s resident ‘anorak’ (yours truly) chanced upon an unforgivable error.

    The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour movie was premiéred on BBC TV on December 26 1967, not 1968, as a ‘timeline’ video display proudly insisted. It appears that some members of the Human Google need to swot up!

    Such criticism, however, is paled by the technological feat behind the eye candy.

As the lead technical contractor, UK-based system integrator Sysco has harnessed all of the specified technology and helped turn the exhibition into a veritable feast for the senses.

    The company’s enviable track record of working on installation projects including the nearby Royal Observatory at Greenwich, the recent ‘Hadrian’ and ‘Terracotta Army’ exhibitions at The British Museum, and Christie’s in London, New York and Paris, put Sysco in pole position for delivering an ideal solution for the BME.

    Working with Land Design, the BME’s exhibition design consultancy, and three software designers (Studio Simple, iso design and Clay Interactive), Sysco developed new processes and systems to create the interactive environment within the short timescale.

    This was enabled by pre-determining both the optimum technologies for each exhibit and how specified equipment would be integrated into the overall show control system. That in turn allowed substantial elements of the show control software be written and tested before work on site began.

    Complementing that process, Sysco established a dedicated pre-installation technical facility near the O2 in south London which allowed all systems to be pre-fabricated and tested before final assembly on-site.

    The company has specified and installed the key projection, audio and computer systems that deliver the BME experience, including multi-projector edge-blended projections; interactive control surfaces of various different types; localised audio systems; laminated touch screens and on-glass ‘holo’ displays; and the thrilling rock’n’roll-style ‘Exit Show’ which uses 13 Christie DS+6K DLP three-chip projectors compressed on to a LiteStructures truss in a dramatic dual layer projection combined with Panasonic 65” UXGA plasma displays to create a 3D illusion.

    Sysco also implemented technologies that enable the RFID Smartcards to extend interaction beyond the actual visit. Chris Mothersdale, Sysco’s operations director, who led the team along with director of engineering Glyn Hughes and technology director Graeme Bunyan, explained: “Through previous commissions, we knew the people from Land Design and following their recommendation we successfully tendered for the project, coming in at an early stage.

    “We went through every piece of kit specified on the tender documents and after 48 hours spent thrashing it out in a dark room, I don’t think many of the original items stayed.

    “In reality, not all of the kit would do what was expected of it and, of course, cost is always a major issue. So we were pleased to deliver a package well within budget.

    “We’re driving the exhibition via a Cue show control system and have provided our own custom-built PCs, Apple Macs with specific graphics cards, and hard disk playback devices with HD players for certain exhibits which are either controlled by RS232 or IP.

    “Audio-wise, we’re using a variety of MP3 players, either triggered or looped, and Mac Pros which are used everywhere — the majority of our Macs and PCs have audio output.”

    A network of BSS Soundweb sw9088ii and Soundweb Lite sw3088 digital signal processors, supplied through UK distributor Sound Technology, provide intelligent audio distribution to the exhibits, while Lab.gruppen C-Series and Cloud CX-A4 amplifiers are the main audio power sources.

    Positioned around the central Core in six rings is a ‘speakerscape’ of Tannoy 8” dual concentric drivers running 6.1 audio, augmented by a Tannoy VS18DR sub. These are fed by a Mac which is programmed to never play the same audio twice.

    Over 100 speaker units were installed around this area, including 360° Soundtube 550s, Tannoy CMS-401 DCe ‘eyeball’ dual concentric ceiling speakers for localised audio and Buttkicker bass drivers fitted into surrounding seats.

    The ‘Pre-Show’ presentation, featuring Lauren Laverne’s intro, also features Tannoy speakers (VS12HP & VS18DR) and is run off an AdTech Hi-Def solid state player through a 5.1 decoder.

    For the ‘Exit Show’, Sysco installed a Fostex D2424 digital audio multitrack which is time code-synched to a Dataton Watchout video playback system running 13 lines of video.

    More Christie DLP single-chip and three-chip projectors (DS+650 SXGA+, DS+655 and DS+305) appear across the whole project, totalling around 60, and there are nearly 60 NEC and Panasonic video screens of different sizes.

    To aid interactivity, Sysco also installed 3” HAPP trackballs, touch screens and custom-made ‘fretboards’ and ‘touch tables’ based on capacitor-sensitive touch — all of which were designed by Sysco itself.

Three major sponsors — Gibson, Sennheiser and Getty Images, the news, sport and entertainment content and imagery provider  — are involved alongside supporting organisations BBC Worldwide and PRS For Music.

    While Gibson’s ranges of guitars, basses, keyboards and drums are very much in evidence, a total of 225 pairs of Sennheiser HD 215 headphones provide hi-fi sound quality for visitors in virtually every area of the exhibition.

    Furthermore, an evolution e935 microphone takes pride of place in the Sennheiser Vocal Booth, where visitors can learn about singing and add their voices to a classic British hit.

    “As there’s so much audio content with every exhibit, Sennheiser’s headphones are absolutely necessary,” commented Chris Mothersdale.

    “They receive line level from source and there are small PCB amplifiers that we custom-made to fit into each exhibit and provide the desired volume.

    “The audio balance was set by sound consultant Peter Key who took HSE guidelines into consideration. Many children will be visiting so it was important not to damage their hearing by allowing headphone dB levels to be turned up too high.

    “It’s a little unfortunate for older, serious music fans who would like a more profound sound level, and I’d certainly like it to be louder, but that’s what we’ve had to work within.”

    Sennheiser also has a prominent ‘try before you buy’ POS display of its products within the onsite retail store.

    “The entire team at Sennheiser is delighted to be associated with the BME,” said Sennheiser UK general manager, Phil Massey.

    “It’s a great opportunity to share the experience we’ve gained over 60 years in the industry with BME visitors. Our technology has run in parallel with British music history, so it makes perfect sense to be a partner.”

David Atkinson Lighting Design (DALD) desigined the lighting scheme for all areas of the BME. Atkinson, who was assisted by Stewart Parker as the lighting programmer, used a wide range of architectural and theatrical products, mainly from Flos, Robe, Pulsar, Chroma-Q, Martin Professional and Jands — all governed by the overall Cue show control system, and many supplied by A.C. Special Projects.

    The Pre-Show introduction space relies mostly on theatrical/rock’n’roll fixtures including Martin SmartMACs and Robe 250AT washes, along with DR2s from Remote Controlled Lighting for a low-level glow. These also come into play whenever the dividing wall between the Pre-Show and the Exit Show areas is moved back to enable special events.

    Atkinson commented: “We uploaded the Pre- and Exit Shows to an Enttec E-Streamer DMX show replay unit (+ expansion module), and programmed on a Jands Vista console which has the advantage of time code timeline, allowing us to be very precise with, for instance, the movement of the SmartMACs on to the exit doorway when the Pre-Show video ends.”

    Flos wall wash track lighting is installed in the adjacent ‘walk-through’ corridor as one moves into either the Gibson Interactive Studio or The Core.

    The Studio has an array of upside down cymbals suspended in the roof, uplit by wall-mounted Flos Compass Spots and Pure Spot 3s with red filters. The areas in which visitors play instruments are also lit with Compass Spots, fitted with blue correction filters for a cool look.

    Moving into the central Core, all the elements within the ‘speakerscape’ were treated with white UV-sensitive paint to fluoresce when lit with 150W Meyer Superlites (each fitted with a toughened deep blue filter).

    General lighting for The Core is handled by 24 Teclumen Multibeam 150s (metal halide PARs) with blue and red dichroic filters to follow the corporate branding theme.

    The Playback and Transmission showcases, featuring vintage TVs, video machines and record players, are illuminated upon the visitor’s interactive command by small DGA LED heads.

    The Dance of the Decades area within The Core is subtlely lit with Anytronics 400mm x 900mm DMX-controlled Softlights.

    “Lighting in the Edge Zones is very simple,” said Atkinson. “The graphics and content are so strong that it was important to enhance but not over-light, so we went for subtle track fittings [more Flos Pure Spots], most of which are hidden in voids and fitted with colour correction filters.”

    There were other criteria that informed Atkinson’s design. “All the showcases are Conservation Grade which means that everything is set at 50 lux. Also, we have to adhere to the DDA [Disability Discrimination Act] and make sure there is sufficient light for any disabled visitors.”

    The penultimate exhibition zone is Futures, primarily a holding area for the Exit Show, lit with more 35W Flos Compass Spots and featuring widescreen ‘letterbox’ projection.

    “With the Exit Show, we wanted to hype up the live experience, which is why you see a lot of overhead truss and exposed surfaces, with everything in the roof painted black. Land Design chose a rubberised floor, treated with a high gloss finish to help reflect light.

    “We have two CITC water-based Starhazers which we chose because they leave minimum residue, and a pair of Jem DMX fans help to move the haze around, highlight beams and give a realistic feel of a live show.”

    The content produced for this finale by Glasgow-based ident specialist iso design to project on to the large, wrap-around gauze screen is simply majestic.

    It took Atkinson and Stewart Parker four days to program the accompanying lighting. “We initially backlight the internal gauzes with the new SmartMACs, fitted with custom glass gobos, which effectively mask the perimeter projection screens.

    “There a lot of 1500W Pulsar Demon strobes dotted around, as well as 10 Chroma-Q Color Punch LED units positioned above the audience. Finally, audience blinders and general exit lighting to the space is from Remote Controlled Lighting DMX DR2 AR111 fixtures.

    “From a lighting design perspective, the project has been a stimulating experience and it’s extremely gratifying to be a part of something that will be enjoyed for a long time to come.”

Plans are in motion to introduce an annual BME ‘Hall of Fame’-type induction ceremony for music stars over the next few years, said Goldsmith, once the exhibition settles down.

    On a personal note, I sincerely hope that the BME is a long-term success that continues to develop and prosper as a testament to Great Britain’s enormous musical contribution to the world. I would also urge the BME to delve deeper into the heart of what made these contributions so important in the first place.

    One gets the feeling that, technology aside, it is just scratching the surface at the moment. There is so much more to be seen and said, and Goldsmith’s parting words offered future promise.

    “Our intention is to eventually expand downstairs into the ground floor area and take over the whole of the O2 Bubble. That will open up so many possibilities for additional content and themes, so I hope that does happen in time.”

Main photography by Mike Lethby,
Matt Wain, Mark Cunningham & AEG


British Music Experience
  • British Music Experience
  • British Music Experience
  • British Music Experience
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