Play time

Deeply emotive topics such as popular music and sport present a pleasantly poisoned chalice for exhibition designers.

Passionate fans with an encyclopaedic knowledge of their idols need to be taken seriously, while too much gravitas is preposterous when discussing the merits of, say, Steps or Take That. And, does the act of dignifying popular music within its very own, Lottery-supported centre run contrary to the fresh, rebellious essence of the fast-changing subject matter itself? Where should the balance lie between entertainment and education?

There’s no shortage of operators willing to tackle these challenges. This month sees the opening of two music attractions which offer very different treatments of popular music. Both claim to be fun and entertaining, but their approaches are polarised in the extreme.

Rock Circus, the often-mocked, wax model-based tourist attraction at London’s Piccadilly Circus, is reopening after a 2.4m redesign. Operator Tussauds Group hopes this will help rebuild falling visitor numbers from 600 000 to beyond its one-time peak of 750 000 and up to the one million mark.

The result is a hilarious tongue-in-cheek look at the history of pop using wax models in new settings to tell the history of the music scene.

“It’s real rock’n’roll. As completely naff and brain-numbing as the real thing,” says appreciative stadium stage set designer Mark Fisher, who designed the after-show party scene.

Comparisons with the National Centre for Popular Music in Sheffield are unfair to both. While Rock Circus is highly commercial fun in the form of a revamped Eighties tourist concept, the NCPM has a different remit.

Part sophisticated visitor attraction, part educational resource, it is supported by an Arts Lottery grant and – housed in Branson Coates’ four-drum-shaped building – aims to appeal to all the family rather than just the Rock Circus 14-44 age, 64 per cent tourist, target market. Instead, National Curriculum issues are important and there is consequently little urge to highlight pop’s more sordid sex and drugs side. Investing in specially-commissioned films, the centre covers every musical taste from Rolf Harris to Garbage.

Interestingly, neither development went for typical exhibition designers. Rock Circus’s revamp is being carried out by the Tussauds’ in-house studio, where staff working on such attractions are more likely to be referred to as producers than designers. With his experience working for megagroups such as U2 and the Rolling Stones, it is perhaps appropriate that Fisher was brought in to design the after-show party scene.

And at Sheffield, creative director Tim Strickland was disenchanted with more than 20 exhibition designers up for the job. Instead, he appointed theatre designer Francis O’Connor to do the design and gave London graphics group Intro its first exhibition project. ©

But then such attractions are so much more theatrical and multimedia-led than more conventional exhibition design and require a very different approach, according to Tim Rusby of specialist attraction design group Montclair.

“Too many people who dabble in it don’t understand it… You have to understand the audience, their aspirations and the communication tools for the job,” says Rusby, who is himself working on the forthcoming Premier League Football Hall of Fame attraction at London’s County Hall.

“With themes like music or football you’re designing for a very broad church. The danger is that you design for the lowest common denominator and dumb-down the attraction. The other scenario is designing for the aficionado – the anorak who knows more about the subject than the designer ever will.

“You have to give people an experience of a different environment – the things you can’t get from a book at home,” he adds.

The Sheffield music centre certainly achieves this with areas devoted to themes such as social protest and the Oh God exhibit about fan-worship where you see multiple reflections of yourself in mirrors incorporating icon boxes with little shrines to stars. Instead of wax models la Tussauds, dolls are dressed up in specially-made costumes to show the different fashions of pop.

In the Making Music section (avoiding obvious design ploys of enlarged instruments) visitors can not only try out instruments, but have a go at mixing, editing, designing the packaging, and directing a video. Turning Points attempts to give the global context of popular music, while the Soundscapes drum will play sounds to celebrate the diversity of popular music.

In a different world of subtlety to Rock Circus, the exhibition rewards those prepared to spend more time and attention to understand its serious content as well as its fun level. As O’Connor says, “You have to work at it” – rather than taking a Rock Circus in-yer-face approach.

“It has got serious content. We wanted to make it appeal to as wide a public as possible,” he adds.

There have already been some teething problems – captions have been added to many exhibits conceived as self-explanatory after it became clear during previews that visitors needed more guidance. Strickland refutes criticisms that the centre has not found its niche, believing that the centre has suffered from a Cool Britannia press backlash.

“We hope it’s a tourist destination, but we see it as a living arts centre. Certainly not something that’s boring,” he says. With such a large subject, Strickland says the aim was not to define popular music, but to bring it to life in an intriguing series of interpretative spaces deliberately pitched to appeal on some levels to adults and on others to children. Serious subjects such as obsessive fans are dealt with, for example, while children of all ages can enjoy instrument karaoke in the Making Music drum.

“It’s about broadening people’s horizons, about education with a small E. Encouraging people to have a go and using music as a stepping-off point,” adds Strickland.

Back at Rock Circus, the emphasis is on a more personality-based entertainment. There are no pretensions to anything deep and meaningful – it’s just light-hearted, straightforward fun from the moment you enter through the Green Room set, to the exit through the after-show party scene.

Tussauds’ team, stuck with the wax-model format, decided to broaden the scope away from just the 73 figures to creating a series of London settings telling the story of pop – hence a recording studio with Aretha Franklyn and Bob Dylan, a recreation of Tin Pan Alley, Biba, Central St Martins, Ronnie Scott’s and a host of other key locations of musical significance.

Visitors reach this after experiencing a multimedia music show hosted virtually by Jools Holland on the history of rock ‘n’ roll and then walking over the theatre stage into the corridor of memorabilia and the London location


“I want to build the home crowd back up,” says show producer Phil Pike. “We weren’t seen as being credible. Jools Holland and Mark Fisher give us a credibility as a London music attraction,” he adds.

He hopes to give a feeling of peeping behind the scenes in the backstage sets and after-show party scenes. “The idea is that you’ve been © invited backstage into the world of rock’n’ roll.”

Over in the world of sport, The Premier League Hall of Fame planned for County Hall has similarities with the approaches of both music attractions. Remarkably for today’s sophisticated world of video and interactive technology, wax-models again make an appearance in the Hall of Fame, in the form of 12 stars of today’s game. There will be an attempt to put the subject in its social context and look at related issues such as the nature of stadiums, and fandom and also like the Sheffield music centre a hands-on element – playing sophisticated interactive football games.

With a County Hall location, the football attraction, like Rock Circus at Piccadilly Circus, seems likely to appeal to the ever-renewable hoards of tourists. The Sheffield music centre, well off the tourist beaten-track, is playing a longer game, with a necessarily more sophisticated and ambitious approach worthy of both its aspirations and its remarkable Branson Coates-designed home. Hit or flop? That’s up to the public – let in from the start of this month – to decide.

Rock Circus, Piccadilly Circus, London

Client: The Tussauds Group

Budget: 2.4m

Designer: Tussauds design studio with Mark Fisher Studio

Identity: Quantock

Opening Date: 15 March

Realising its fading tourist attraction Rock Circus needed a complete overhaul, operator The Tussauds Group closed it down, ripped it up and started again. Apart from retaining some of the wax models, entirely new and firmly tongue-in-cheek settings have been created by the in-house design studio in a joyously shameless interpretation of the history of popular music. The designers have fun with The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour bus, Westwood’s Sex shop, Tin Pan Alley and a macabre graveyard scene (cue: Stairway to Heaven amid tombstones and a wax model of Michael Hutchence) and link up with Mark Fisher, stadium stage-set designer to the stars, for the after-show party scene finale.

‘It’s pure Spinal Tap,’ says Fisher. In his area, visitors are ushered into a bar serving real (but non-alcoholic) drinks. A column by the bar unfolds to reveal an automatic ‘video DJ’ which tracks out over the audience shouting comments and interacting with images on a huge multi-screen perimeter video wall. The aural and visual assault gives the affect of a mad and surreal nightclub as a fitting finale to a fun and, according to Fisher, ‘priceless’ Rock Circus experience.

National Centre for Popular Music, Sheffield

Client: Music Heritage

Project cost: 15m

Architect: Branson Coates Architecture

Designer: Francis O’Connor

Exhibition graphics: Intro

Other graphics: DED Associates, Eg.G, Tonic

Opening Date: 1 March

As might be expected from Branson Coates’ distinctive four-drum building design, Sheffield’s National Centre for Popular Music contains four exhibition areas in its quest to provide an entertaining and educational journey through the heady world of popular music. Theatre designer Francis O’Connor created six themed settings within the Perspectives drum looking at music through dance, protest songs, fan-worship, stardom, a music corridor on the differences between rock and pop, and love.

O’Connor describes this amorous section as ‘slightly tongue-in-cheek retro-kitschy’ with cherub-patterned velvet curtains and a special love chair which whispers sweet nothings such as ‘Hello sweetie’ or ‘I love you’ when certain pressure points are activated by the sitter. Images of famous pre-Raphaelite painters adorn the area, captioned by poems and linked to appropriate figures such as Echo & Narcissus and Liberace.

For the Stardust exhibit, fibre-optic lights are installed in the floor, walls and ceiling to give a twinkly, starry effect interspersed with photos of stars and relevant music: extracts from Nessum Dorma near a photo of Luciano Pavarotti, for example.

Visitors move into the Making Music drum to discover how popular music is created, recorded and distributed and can have a go for themselves in a – mercifully headphoned – jamming area.

Turning Points, the third drum, uses a large-scale ‘world wall’ to look at the global impact of popular music and access sounds from all around the world. A fourth drum houses a sound experience in the world’s first 3D surrounding sound auditorium. Wary of visual overload, Intro’s graphics aim to be clean and minimal.

FA Premier Hall of Fame, County Hall, London

Client: United Attractions

Budget: 8.5m

Size: 3070mDesigner: Montclair Design Consultants

Exhibition contractor: Scena Productions

Lighting designer: Technovations

Audio-visual software: Centre Screen Productions

Audio-visual hardware: D J Willrich

Opening date: 29 May

Inspired by a baseball hall of fame in the US, The FA Premier League Hall of Fame is billed to be the spiritual home of English soccer. Despite its name, it will consist of not one but five halls designed to educate and entertain the visitor throughout their 90-minute visit.

As well as wax models of modern day stars such as Eric Cantona and Ian Wright, a film area, halls of fans and state-of-the-art interactive football games, the attraction’s Hall of Legends will put key moments in the history of the game in their social context up to the formation of the Premier League in 1992.

Montclair has recreated a medieval streetscene which will be animated by actors to show football as an apprentice’s street game in 14th century Clerkenwell. Visitors will learn how the English and the Germans took to soccer to celebrate the Christmas ceasefire in World War I, and can sit inside the recreation of a Fifties cinema to watch the 1953 Cup Final on the big screen.

If the Hall of Legends looks at the broader social and historical picture, the Hall of Fans is where it gets personal in a celebration of fan culture and memorabilia ranging from cups of Bovril to hand-casts of famous and not-so-famous devotees.

‘If football is a religion then we are building Jerusalem,’ says Tim Rusby of Montclair.

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