Documenting Youth Culture

Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit was released on 10 September 1991. It was the lead single to Nevermind, an album which sold over 30 million copies. Songs about adolescence have dominated the charts time and again: Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream, or Teenage Dirtbag by Wheatus. But what exactly is “teen spirit”? More broadly, what does it mean to be young?

During lockdown, London’s Museum of Youth Culture encouraged the public to delve through old shoeboxes, look in attics and flick through picture albums. It was the ultimate exercise in nostalgia, driven by a goal to diversify the museum’s collections and “bring everyone’s story of growing up into the fray.” 6,000 photographs and objects were amassed. The result is Grown Up in Britain: 100 Years of Teenage Kicks, a celebration of adolescent life from the 1920s until today. The show is dedicated to real stories, chronicling a kaleidoscope of subcultures, sounds and styles, with a mission of “going beyond the headlines.” Personal snapshots are displayed alongside well-known artists such as Ken Russell, Normski, Anita Corbin, Gavin Watson and Lucy McCarthy.

The nation’s family albums are crammed with memories, from summer holidays and weekend hangouts to first loves and Saturday jobs. Friends gather in large crowds: enjoying club nights, concerts and music festivals. There’s a sense of freedom and abandon, with couples sharing kisses outdoors or relaxing on summer breaks. In one image, three people pose with a road sign on the M40. Elsewhere, individuals lounge in poster-plastered rooms, surrounded by pop-culture icons and shrines to music and film. There is a notable quantity of protest photography: positioning young voices as agents of change and taking justice into their own hands.

Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, Coventry | 1 July – 22 February

Words: Eleanor Sutherland

Image Credits:
1. Protester with her fist raised at the Black Lives Matter rally in Central London, summer 2020. Tommy Sussex.
2. Teenagers exchange numbers at the roller rink, London, 2001. Rebecca Lewis.
3. Babycakes Romero.