Smells like teen spirit at the Herbert…
Grown Up in Britain is an exhibition celebrating teenage life in the UK, from the 1920s right through to today.
Perhaps I should have realised when I began my full-time studies at Warwick just how much I would end up pondering my own youth.
But being surrounded by bright young things over the past two years has meant that a wander down memory lane was somewhat inevitable.
Back in the 90s, I was in such a mad rush to grow up and be responsible [insert best-days-of-your life adage here]. This is me aged 16, on the right, with my sister, Dee.
I didn’t realise at the time how significant those formative adult years would turn out to be.
Grown Up in Britain, at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry, does a tremendous job of unravelling the relevance of youth to modern British society as much as to oneself.
Drawing upon the visual impact of both personal and professional photographs, collectable objects, magazines, clothing and more, the exhibition invites you to revive your own memories, while reflecting on youth impact and experience in a wider context.
Curated with the Museum of Youth Culture, the exhibition covers a century of rebellion and adventure, and manages to capture as much of the spirit of pre-WWII youth as it does for later generations.
If anything, the earlier decades help bring you closer to the tangible histories of your parents, grandparents and great-grandparents’ teenage years.
From Bicycle racers to punks, Northern Soul to Acid House, and every subculture in between, if you don’t see ‘yourself’ there, you’ll certainly see someone you know.
The exhibition captures plenty of intercultural experiences, with a focus on Coventry as a hometown for young people through the years.
There is also an excellent selection of works by Vanley Burke, who is often dubbed the ‘godfather of Black British photography’ for his powerfully assertive images that make the seemingly ordinary, extraordinary.
And there are countless objects on display that demonstrate just how far technology has come – certainly in the years I’ve been alive.
For me, the Spectrum ZX, Nokia 3310 and the portable turntable (that’s a record player, folks) were all references to my youth that I realise I’d now have to explain at length to my own children.
This is a collection of snapshots from a world that existed before everyone had something to record it with in their back pocket.
My most memorable teen experiences were not immortalised because nobody had a camera to hand (admittedly that’s perhaps not such a bad thing in retrospect…)
The striking connection between generations comes thanks to the extensive public photo submissions that form a huge part of the show.
In fact, visitors can even insert their own personal photographs into the display, with an on-site scanning machine, and see their snaps projected on a huge wall.
I took the opportunity to project photobooth images of my late father, aged 15, in the early 1970s.
It’s still by far one of the most iconic images I can find of him, and we had it in his order of service at his funeral.
The final space celebrates the fire and passion of youth that often motivates social change.
Though much has changed in Britain over the past 100 years, there is something about this space that suggests how much it hasn’t… such as how it is very often still the young people of today that push for a better future.
- Grown Up in Britain is at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry, until February 12, 2023.