Once Seen, Seldom Ventured: 2. The National Centre for Popular Music, Sheffield

A Silver Timpani Based White Elephant

Sheffield has a proud musical heritage. From Joe Cocker to Jarvis Cocker, and Cabaret Voltaire to the Human League, it, along with Manchester and Liverpool would have been good places for a musical archive of some description. Whereas Liverpool and Manchester is world famous for its popular culture, few people outside of Northern England may be familiar with the Sheffield scene.

On a trip to Sheffield I made on the 06 January 2000, I visited the National Centre for Popular Music. I hoped the museum would offer some reference to ABC, Cabaret Voltaire, Clock DVA and the Human League. Instead, I left the museum disappointed thinking ‘be populist but at least have something of a local nature’. Apart from an exhibition with pictures of the closed Corporation and Fiesta clubs, I left feeling a little empty handed.

The Museum

The National Centre for Popular Music opened on March 1999. It was designed by Branson Coates Architects following a design competition. Coated in – appropriately – Stainless Steel, it resembles four timpani drums. Its lids rotated in the wind.

Opening on the 01 March 1999, the museum cost £15 million, with £11 million from National Lottery funding. On the ground floor, was a café and exhibition space for free temporary exhibitions. The main part of the museum was on the first floor, with its centrepiece being ‘Soundscapes’, a 3D surround sound auditorium with ambient music written by Heaven 17’s Martyn Ware.

A further two drums were called ‘Perspectives’ and ‘Making Music’. The latter was a child-friendly hands-on part of the museum. Another drum was devoted to World Music, though meant for temporary exhibitions. With potential family appeal, the National Centre of Popular Music’s trustees were optimistic and anticipated visitor numbers of 400,000 per year.


The October 1999 saw the museum go into liquidation. Its owners, Music Heritage, handed control of the museum to Price Waterhouse Coopers. Over seven months, they amassed 107,000 visitors, which would have equated to about 200,000 visitors per year – half their target. The sparsity of exhibits and the price (an expensive for 1999 £21 for a family ticket) may have put visitors off.

At the start of 2000, visitor forecasts were reduced to 150,000 per annum, more achievable than the 400,000. In spite of a relaunch, the National Centre for Popular Music closed for good in June 2000. The building was put to good use afterwards, as a live music venue in 2001. Two years later, Sheffield Hallam University purchased it for their Students’ Union premises.


On my visit, the museum lacked a certain oomph. In my opinion, it didn’t know whether it wanted to be a musical theme park or creche, or a scholarly museum. I wanted it to be the latter, given Sheffield’s proud musical history. Where was the material on Western Works? Why couldn’t I have bought a CD version of Cabaret Voltaire’s seminal 1981 album ‘Red Mecca’?

Today, there doesn’t seem to be a specialist music museum under the aegis of, for example, the Science Museum Group. The closest thing to the National Centre for Popular Music is the British Music Experience in part of the O2 Arena, Greenwich. Owned by a charitable trust, it opened in 2009 (with funding by Harvey Goldsmith) and – ironically – occupies part of another unsuccessful millennium attraction (the Millennium Dome). It seems to have righted the wrongs of Sheffield’s venture, though this still leaves Northern England without a music museum of some description.

On commercial grounds, Liverpool or Manchester would have been better places for a popular music museum. In 1999, Sheffield was probably 10 years behind Manchester and Liverpool in being a world renowned tourist destination. Their heart was in the right place: Sheffield, with its excellent links to the rest of Yorkshire, Manchester and the Peak District, had potential for good footfall. Alas it wasn’t to be, despite being close to Midland station, the Showroom Cinema and Gallery, and The Leadmill.

S.V., 24 March 2013.

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