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Pop Culture

Paul Lilley tells Simon Stephens about the challenges of creating the British Music Experience from scratch
Paul Lilley
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Of all the museums that have opened in the past few years, London’s £9m British Music Experience (BME), which was unveiled in 2009, seems to have gone unnoticed by many.

“There is a slightly snotty attitude to popular culture in museums and it bugs me that popular music has been left off the museum landscape,” says BME curator Paul Lilley.

“I have come up against people who say popular music is not a Constable painting, it is not an Eames chair, it is not Stephenson’s Rocket. But it is important and 140,000 visitors in our first year is a testament to that.”

The BME does not feel like a conventional museum, partly because of its location in the O2, the former Millennium Dome in Greenwich. Its wide range of interactive media also means it looks very different to most museums, although it also has lots of objects in showcases.

Its low profile might also be because it did not spend years drumming up financial support from public bodies, as all its funding came from AEG, the live entertainment and sporting events company that owns the O2. Lilley himself does not have a traditional museum background, although he started out as a field archaeologist.

But “the winters were too tough and too long”, so he did a master’s in heritage management. This led to a job as the heritage manager at the EMI Group Archive Trust, which was where he was approached by the BME. He joined two years before the BME opened and was the first person on board. He was presented with a blank piece of paper and a budget of £9m.

Lilley got exhibition designer Land Design Studio on board and then built up a content team that included Rob Dickins, who used to run Warner Music and is a former Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) trustee; Mark Ellen, the editor of music magazine the Word; and Bob Santelli, who set up the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles.

But even with these heavyweights involved, progress was slow. “We started without an object, without a picture, without a video – it was very difficult putting together a collection from nothing,” says Lilley.

“And we don’t do music museums in the UK, so when you go to artists they say, ‘You want us to give you never-seen-before footage and all these objects, but what are you going to be?’ You try and tell them and they are a little bit sceptical, and they say, ‘Didn’t something happen in Sheffield and wasn’t it panned?’”

The failure of Sheffield’s National Centre for Popular Music, which closed in 2000 less than 18 months after opening, still casts a long shadow, but despite this Lilley and the content team started to make progress.

“It is a very gradual thing and slowly it begins to get some traction and it builds. When a couple of the really big artists throw their weight behind it, then you play them off against each other or they get helpful and they call their mates who are also very big artists. Then artists begin to come to you.”

Lilley says that buy-in from the whole music industry, something that didn’t happen in Sheffield, was vital.

BME is a registered charity and its chairman is the music promoter Harvey Goldsmith, who had the original idea for the museum and secured the funding from AEG.

The board includes representatives from trade body the British Phonographic Industry, the PRS for Music (formerly the Performing Right Society), music licensing company PPL, as well as managers and promoters.

With the funding in place and the backing of the music industry, Lilley and his content team could gather material and develop the interpretation. It was decided that the subject matter lent itself to lots of interactivity.

“We wanted to engage people and get them involved. We wanted to really pull them into the story and to try and tease out some of the emotional baggage they have invested in the music. And the only way to do that is down this interactive route.”

Visitors can look at objects such as Noel Gallagher’s Union Jack guitar in the museum, but then they can also go into the Gibson Interactive Studio where audiovisuals featuring pop stars such as KT Tunstall will teach them how to play the instrument.

It’s the same with the approach to dancing. The BME could have shown a video of someone doing the twist and written a text panel explaining its importance, but instead visitors are taught to perform the dance themselves and can see their efforts played back. There are a range of dances to choose from and this is a popular area of the BME.

New technology is also used to provide layered content, with visitors able to use the radio-frequency identification (RFID) tagging system on their tickets to create their own archive, which they can access online after their visit.

“Technology allows us to do wonderful things and we are privileged as a new museum to be able to really push the boat out,” Lilley says. “But it’s never gratuitous and we always made sure we were doing things for the right reason and that we were designing the interfaces to fit with the story we are trying to tell.”

Lilley says the approach is somewhere in between the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which is very object heavy, and the Experience Music Project in Seattle, which is more experiential.

The museum combines iconic objects, such as David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust costume, with everyday items such as concert tickets that visitors can easily relate to and might even have owned.

A feature of the BME is the tabletalk films, which have four talking heads arranged to look as though they are having a conversation. One of the pleasures of Lilley’s job was conducting the interviews with the 70 musicians who feature in the excerpts.

He got to hear about the birth of trad jazz from Chris Barber, to discuss politics and Live Aid with Bob Geldolf and to chat about the east London grime scene with Dizzee Rascal. He also met lots of musicians while asking to borrow their possessions for the displays.

“Some of them are very open, honest and friendly, others aren’t so friendly. Of course, you meet a lot of your heroes, some of who remain heroes, others less so.”

Now the museum is bedded in and in its second year, Lilley is concentrating on reaching new audiences. An iPhone app is on its way soon, and in July the BME announced that a partnership with the Co-Operative would provide 15,000 free tickets to the venue for young people.

The museum already has a strong education programme and an example of its work is Soundstage Outreach, where money from the band Metallica has allowed the BME to mentor eight local hard-to-reach youngsters.

Lilley is also developing touring exhibitions. The first is likely to be about Bowie, with the BME teaming up with music museums in the US, France and possibly Australia.

The BME also has relationships with a number of UK museums, such as the V&A, which lent some objects. And the Science Museum and National Museums Liverpool have visited to fi nd out more about its high-tech approach.

But despite all the clever technology, Lilley’s favourite object in the museum is a simple 1950s hand-painted guitar with a kazoo attached. It belonged to Russell Quaye, who was in a street skiffle band called the City Ramblers.

“I found someone who used to be in the City Ramblers, as Russell had died, and she said she thought that someone who had inherited Russell’s house had some stuff. I went round this guy’s house and there, covered in dust, was the guitar with the kazoo. It’s an unassuming object, but with a pretty important story to tell.”

Lilley believes popular music has lots of important stories to tell, ones that strike a chord with visitors to the BME. “Rock and pop means a lot to a lot of people and is tightly wrapped up in their life stories. We have people who leave the BME crying because music moves them.”

  • Paul Lilley is speaking at this year’s Museums Association annual conference, 4-6 October, Manchester. Click here for more

Paul Lilley at a glance

Paul Lilley took a degree in archaeology and then worked as a field archaeologist.

He did a master’s in heritage management before becoming the heritage manager for EMI Records, which stores its collection in Hayes, Middlesex. Lilley joined the British Music Experience as its curator in July 2007. He was born in Canterbury, Kent, in 1976.

Image: copyright Phil Sayer

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