British Music Experience

Date February 7, 2010 | Map

The British Music Experience (BME) at The O2 is supposed to be an interactive museum, so expect lots of flashy displays and things to touch. At £15, the entrance fee is rather hefty and on par with other major London attractions. Therefore, the exhibition better be good!

British Music Experience Logo

British Music Experience

Of course I didn’t pay the full amount, neither did I pay the concession rate of £12, which is still steep. No, this week, the BME was giving out tickets at £1, most likely as a marketing activity to spread the word. Later I learned that they also wanted to get some information from us visitors, and I duly filled in my survey. I am not usually filling in marketing surveys, but the overall voice of the BME was quite nice: well-worded statements, not too cool-ish, not too academic, really make you feel welcome here, but you should come with an interest in British post-45 pop music. Because that’s what this is all about.

Forget classical music, disregard jazz to some degree, and don’t expect to learn much about niche music styles, the BME is all about musical stardom, the mainstream that draws crowds. Which makes the acronym even more unlucky: BME always makes me think of ethnical monitoring sections in various forms (Black and Minority Ethnics), but minorities do not play any significant role in this exhibition. Fair enough, just get your expectations right.

The exhibition itself is permanently housed in the O2 Bubble, which is a bit Tardis-like: much larger on the inside than it appears. The BME is organised into different Edge Zones, branching off from The Core, a central plaza, to which you will only get access after a dynamic introductory video. The Edge Zones address different historical phases from 1945 to the present, and an eighth room serves as the interactive Gibson studio, which is where we headed first, right after the exhibition opened for the day.

British Music Experience Ticket

BME Ticket

Getting there early and into the Gibson studio first was a wise decision, as the various instruments were not yet occupied by kids, so we had ample opportunities to try our hands on digital drumsets, guitars, vocal booths, etc. Every music station came with instructional guidance in the form of videos, and this is where I really must criticise an aspect of the exhibition: while you could select your skill level and, if on higher levels, also the performer you wanted to ‘work with’, you essentially had no control over the video at all. No stop, pause, fast forward, rewind, nothing. Educational video worst practice, especially as all screens were touch sensitive! Ok, I understand that this may be suitable for ADHD-challenged children, but it make me lose interest quickly: on my first station, I humbly selected beginner – don’t do that ever unless you have never even seen a musical instrument. Not having discovered any re-start option after three minutes, the video more or less forced me to leave and move on. I was more adventurous at my second station, and while the pro level matched my skills quite well, I would have wished to pause the video here and there to rehearse a bit more, or jump over the easy bits to jam with KT Tunstall in earnest. Yet the absence of any controls made me quit prematurely again.

But despite the criticism, I think the Gibson studio is the best part of the BME: A real fun taster on how to make real, proper music. The sound engineering aspects, though, were rubbish: the interesting knobs of the small mixing desk were out of reach, leaving only eight boring sliders to manipulate the volume balance of a few instruments. Come on, BME guys, let visitors play with EQs and effects, please!

British Music Experience Flyer


The Edge Zones have memorabilia, a video wall, a discussion table where chairs are essentially stands for monitors displaying talking heads of famous figures, and various optional extras. Everything is activated by your ticket, so treat it with care. While it was explained that the exhibition would continue on the Internet, only back at home it dawned upon me that I actually had to tag the content of interest in the actual exhibition to get access via the BME website. Stupid me, I really thought I could re-visit the vast amount of textual, auditorial and visual information online, but no, you had to hold your ticket against the readers at the various stations to mark the content for online viewing. Then, back at home, you would register your personal ticket number on the BME website, and you could go through all of your tagged content.

Sounds all very well in theory, in practice there are two issues: firstly, people like me, who prefer to read large amounts of text from the comfort of their own home must first view their content of interest in the exhibition. The home access is really only for review purposes, but not for generalist browsing and discovery. Ok, understandably they want people to come to the real thing. But secondly, technology may fail, which proved to be beneficial in my case: upon registering my unique ticket ID on the BME website, the website insisted that I had not visited the exhibition, so there was not a single piece of content for me to review (not to mention the three free songs from iTunes). It was at this point where the customer service really impressed me: after a Sunday morning(!) exchange of emails, they offered me a second visit!

So, overall a nice experience. Interesting displays triggering engangement, but apart from the really good Gibson studio and a handful of other activities, the dominating type of interaction was restricted to browse, select and watch something on a big screen or on monitors in occasionally creative settings, a kind of multi-media library on steroids. And this is probably the main point of critique: there is a vast amount of information available, but unless it is put into the spotlight by an unusual display, chances are slim that you will discover some real treasures. Maybe they should think about dedicating one room to temporary themed exhibitions.

The BME is a museum with a difference and lots of fun for families. I would not be prepared to pay the full entrance fee, but I’ll happily return with my name on the guest list. Oh, and make sure you don’t take the shortcut and exit via the audience experience show!

BBC News
Guardian Review
Telegraph Review
Times Review

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