Sonia Long was a black punk from Nottingham in the 1980s. She remembers having to tie up her friends to help her straighten her naturally curly hair to achieve her spiked hairstyle.
“I had left home and was living with a friend in her apartment in a skyscraper. I wasn’t working at the time, so we used to hang out, meet friends and go see bands,” she said. “[My friend] was like, ‘Let me take your picture.’ I don’t remember where we were going, but there was definitely a pub involved and maybe a gig later.
A portrait of Long with bright red hair, a studded belt and dark makeup is one of many photographs on display in a new exhibition organized by the Museum of Youth Culture called “Grown Up in Britain – 100 Years of Teenage Kicks”, opening at the Herbert Art Museums in Coventry on July 1st.
The exhibition aims to celebrate youth culture with an exhibition of photographs, objects and stories collected over the past century. It was important for the curators, Jamie Brett and Jon Swinstead, to have diversity in the collection and to present people from the black British and South Asian communities in an authentic rather than voyeuristic way.
For Long, this particular period of his youth was bittersweet. “I know everyone now has colored hair, piercings and ripped clothes, but we’re talking about the early 80s when it was incredibly shocking. Especially to see a young black woman look like that in Nottingham.
“It was hard to be me in many ways. But I am who I am, and that wasn’t going to change just because some people didn’t like it,” she said.
“I had a lot of people trying to figure out why I chose that youth culture over what was more popular with black women at the time, like funk, soul and reggae. For me, it was just about being very political.
Through works by 40 artists and 50-60 submissions from the public, the exhibition will chronicle the daily experiences of growing up in Britain, from school life to nightlife, and how it has transformed over the decades. .
“We have [images by the photographer Ken Russell of] stuffed girls at the bombing sites of post-war Britain, dressed in Roman sandals and men’s jackets. To me, that’s really powerful,” Brett said. “We also have a satchel that a girl dedicated to her boyfriend ‘Skinhead Ed’ which has been drawn all over with a pen. It’s managed to stand the test of time since the 70s and was donated to us by a vintage shop. They felt like they needed a place to put this, but they couldn’t find the right museum.
The changing nature of young people’s first jobs, apprenticeships and university life will also be a focus. “We have some great photos of people working in factories in Coventry,” Brett said. ” We are too [showing] the first roles of women in public office during the Second World War. We have women’s army outfits on display.
This will be the Museum of Youth Culture’s first major exhibition since its creation in 2015 by Brett and Swinstead. Their goal is to tell a story of teenagers different from that told by the traditional press, sociology books and school textbooks. That’s why they’ve given the general public the chance to be part of the exhibit, to allow for a more nuanced conversation about what it means to be young today.
“The press will often say, ‘There is no more style. There are no more stages,’ but the underground nightlife has gotten absolutely massive since the lockdown,” Brett said. “Older generations assume that they have experienced youth culture and that young people today have a very narrow view of the world because they are all on their devices. That all the scenes from the past are so much better and that you have to look at them with rose-tinted glasses. That’s not the goal of the museum. We’re not a nostalgic collection. We’re actually trying to make it timeless.
During the lockdown, the museum received over 6,000 submissions through its website’s online portal. “Everyone has an image that can go into the museum to help fill that tapestry of British culture growing up,” Brett said.
Some of these submissions have allowed them to fill cultural gaps that have historically been under-documented by professional photographers. “We go back to before everyone seemed to think youth culture started, to the Roaring Twenties and it’s only because of the submissions that came in,” he said. “One of the submissions we had fairly recently was someone named Johnny Willard. He had taken Polaroid photos of the southern soul scene in Essex in 1967.”
A big motivation for conservatives was to undo the moral panics and old stereotypes of the past. “We have a DailyMirror front page of 1961, [with the headline] “Suicide Club!” about motorcycle racers who started bike culture and who were seen as terrorizing society,” Brett said.
“To balance that, we have some great friendship and kinship photos, and real diversity amongst the riders. Rather than being full of white boys, it’s girls. It is people of black British origin who have these beautiful experiences. So we start to challenge [the mainstream narrative].”
The Conservatives are keen to redress the tendency of the press to report negatively on young people, which they say persists to this day. “Things like stabbing and all the horrible situations that children find themselves in, it’s horrible, but it’s happened before. We can go back to the 1950s and we can see that it’s not the fault of young people today – it’s the fault of the system,” Brett said.
They are also keen to use it as an opportunity to connect generations by highlighting the similarities between each era. There will be a replica teenage bedroom for visitors to enter, filled with artifacts from different decades.
Brett said: “People in older generations often think that youth culture doesn’t exist anymore because you don’t see people walking down the street in their skinhead boots anymore, and because people aren’t necessarily dressed in the same clothes you normally associate with rave culture. [young] people can now pick a song from Spotify, or a certain style from a certain fashion era.
“It creates this supermarket-style thing that has really influenced how young people can be themselves in a way that they haven’t been able to before.”
One thing that has clearly changed for teens over the decades is photography itself. Since the advent of the camera phone, there are now more photographs of young people than before, but the quality is much lower. “We come from the era of the negative, where everything is huge, and we can scan it to whatever size we want,” said Brett, who adds that they have encountered technical issues with submissions from the public which are often too pixelated. .
So how do British teenagers from earlier eras and today compare? Visitors to the exhibit will find more similarities than differences, but the teens have become more innovative, according to Brett. “Look at TikTok and people like PinkPantheress, who have taken the music that comes from their own parents and made something mouthwatering out of it and got a record deal out of it.
“These things are so exciting, and it often takes 10 years for people to look back and say, ‘That was my scene.’ Things are happening now – we just might not be able to see it.