This is not a music museum

Next week there’s a seminar to consult on proposals for the Manchester District Music Archive.

Now I like a cheeky acronym, but how popular are they going to be when staid grown-ups who control grant funds imagine teenagers googling for MDMA? Very Madchester.

No-one (not even the press) has mentioned comparisons with Sheffield’s National Centre for Popular Music, but I will.

Between 01993 and ’97 I was, at various times, volunteer, consultant, Education Advisory Group member and part-time employee for the NCPM. I was part of the team that presented to Arts Council assessors in ’95 leading to the first Lottery funding for the Centre, and had the dubious honour of being the first redundancy, before the building was even complete. For over ten years I’ve been a close friend of Tim Strickland, who was Development Director and then Creative Director before being made redundant himself in ’99.

There were three main things I learned from that experience.

  1. Define the scope carefully. Music has vast educational potential: we conceived ideas that would use music to convey everything from cultural diversity and social history to electronics and the physics of acoustics. And the NCPM aimed to tell the whole story of popular music. In less than 40,000 sq ft of exhibition space (the small size being a pragmatic legacy from when the Centre was first conceived in early ’90s recession before Lottery funding was invented). It may seem foolhardy with hindsight, but at the time the concept gathered wide support from worthy sources (see, for example, para 3.61 of the 01995 Foresight report on Leisure and Learning). The legacy of the NCPM experience means that no-one will find support for a ‘national’ music-based visitor attraction in the near future. But even without taking that into account, it’s wise to narrow the focus down to music in the Manchester district.
  2. Balance the digital and physical elements. After it hit problems, the NCPM was criticised for too many interactive exhibits and not enough memorabilia. I was one of the people who advocated maximising use of digital technology early on — in part to address the scope issue of packing so much into so small a place — and I’m largely unrepentant. At the design stage, 7-10 years ago, digital and interactive collections were talked about as the future of ‘engaging content’ that would drive the ‘information superhighway’. But there were so few working examples back then that cautious funders and Boards of Directors were understandably a little nervous about going the whole digital hog. That’s different now, even if the scene is still evolving. The NCPM may have fallen between two stools: a new centre can avoid this. In one of the last-ditch attempts to save the NCPM, they started exhibiting local memorabilia like ticket stubs from Sheffield gigs in years gone by, and there are some similar examples on the MDMArchive site. It’s easier, more convenient, and possibly more hygienic, to browse a large collection of these online, rather than taking up valuable display space, which should focus on artefacts that have more aura. It’s interesting that the MDMArchive, like the NCPM, is avoiding the term ‘museum’.
  3. When it comes to buildings, always look a (capital funding) gift-horse in the mouth. I still think that many of the ideas for the NCPM were sound on paper (pun not intended!). It was when they got transferred to bricks and mortar — or steel drums — that they became compromised. The original projected cost of the NCPM was, I think, under £7 million (another legacy of a pre-Lottery planning stage). The Lottery funding assessors advised that this be increased to around £15 million, as long as it included a ‘landmark building’ rather than the design-and-build option originally planned. (The Lottery contribution ended up being about £11 million; the budget for exhibits did not increase proportionately and was about 10% of total costs.) Well how would anyone respond to that? But in doing this, the Arts Council was subtly turning the NCPM from a music project — they have no history or constituency in popular music — into an architecture project. And a piece of architecture is what was left at the end.

Tim tells me he’s in touch with the MDMArchive. Here’s a profile of the NCPM in more optimistic days, including quotes from him. And here’s a later perspective from Simon Warner.

3 thoughts on “This is not a music museum

  1. Click on the Seminar Report link on the MDMArchive website ( for the organisation’s own view point on the project.
    It’s important to remember, and David Jennings makes the point himself, that funding culture has changed over the last 10 years. It’s unlikely that any funding body approached by the MDMArchive is going to apply the same creative restrictions on the project as apparently happened with the NCPM. While it’s still true that you have to create your funding application around the criteria of the organisation you’re seeking funding from, most funding bodies want to be seen to be supporting something “different”.
    The Manchester District Music Archive has the potential to be something very different, and to be the first facility of its kind in the UK. We at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester have been impressed by how the MDMArchive Board have organised themselves and got this project under way. Picking up on point 1 of David Jennings’ piece, they have a vision, but they are also developing a practical plan on how to achieve that vision. They want to get that plan right. More significantly, though, they want to work with existing organisations in the district. That is where the real success of this project is going to lie.

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