Are teenage dreams so hard to beat? While we might each have our own answer to the Undertones’ perennial pop-punk question, a new exhibition devoted to British youth culture certainly shows that those tricky, hormone-packed years are something to celebrate – and hold up a mirror to social history more widely.
Grown Up In Britain: 100 Years of Teenage Kicks at Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry explores teenage life and youth culture in Britain from the ‘roaring 20s’ to the present day. Curated by the London-based Museum of Youth Culture, the show looks to go beyond the headlines and stereotypical portrayals of decades gone by, instead focusing on lived experiences.
Comprising objects, personal stories and photographs, the show doesn’t just tell us what we already know – that young people like to go raving, or wore miniskirts in the 60s – it tells us what normal life was like for normal teenagers. This includes the confusing, humdrum things like teenage bedrooms and the drudgery of those first jobs that teach you a lot about waking up early, stuffy uniforms, and making tight-knit bonds with colleagues who are watching the clock as eagerly as you.
There’s also the more glitzy stuff, of course: there’s no shortage of photography around raves, parties and subcultures — punks feature heavily, as something of a photographer’s dream in their studied, snarling insouciance and striking haircuts. Grown Up In Britain also takes the rare step of showing how far teens steer culture, taking the pearl-clutching headlines of youth spoiling everything/not knowing they’re born and demonstrating their impact on scenes, music, and fashion.
The exhibition is designed to directly take people back to whatever time they themselves were teenagers by creating immersive spaces recreating the home lives of teens-past; the places they hung out; their workplaces, and more. These are set off by cult objects such as a Royal Enfield Constellation motorcycle (as pictured on the cover of the Daily Mirror Shock Issue in 1961), a 1920s flapper dress, a Chopper bicycle, a ZX Spectrum console, various band T-shirts, fanzines, and more.
While some of the photographs are by big names such as Ken Russell, Normski, Anita Corbin, Gavin Watson and Lucy McCarthy, there’s an equal focus on showing lesser-seen imagery submitted from family albums across the UK. In a bid to expand that archive and provide an even broader exploration of teenage life, visitors can use a scanning booth at the end of the exhibition to submit their own photographs and ephemera to be included.
“During lockdown we invited the public to delve through shoeboxes, lofts and picture albums to radically diversify our collections and bring everyone’s story of growing up into the fray,” says Lisa der Weduwe, archive projects manager at the Museum of Youth Culture.
The museum received 6,000 photographs, objects and stories through its digital submissions portal, and further submissions can be added here. “We discovered that throughout the eras in every town in the UK, youth was expressed in subtly different ways — so a punk in Plymouth looks different to one in Perth,” der Weduwe adds. “This show will reflect how Coventry interprets its youth culture.”
As well as offering a fascinating social history, the images in the show are superb in their own right; telling stories of good times, average times, falling in love, and sitting about just waiting for something to happen. Often, they make you feel nostalgic for a time that you probably didn’t really enjoy as much as you felt you should; or even for eras you weren’t even alive in.
Grown Up In Britain – 100 Years Of Teenage Kicks runs until February at Herbert Museum & Gallery in Coventry; theherbert.org