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Capturing Youth: How Britain Grew Up

Updated: Apr 18, 2023

by Gaia Lamperti

"We wanna see those pictures of your bedroom, your first club night, the Dr Martens boots you kept hold of."
Monochrome film still of party goers at a hectic rave, with their hands high in the air
Party like it's 1999? Motion blur aplenty in this retro snapshot of a rave in progress. (Image: Museum of Youth Culture)

The Museum of Youth Culture was born from the ashes of a since-folded lifestyle magazine and a collection of 150,000 postcards of youth cultural movements going back all the way to the 1940s. Today, the project boasts over 200 museum patrons, and its archives have grown to document the last 100 years of social movements innovated by young people.

“We realised there’s a real public demand for a museum that's dedicated to youth culture alone, and we sort of simmered it down to the scenes, styles, and sounds that young people have forged over the last century,” says Jamie Brett, the project's creative manager.

“Since the post war, people were finally able to express themselves by styling their clothing and listening to music from across the Atlantic, and that freedom has become an intrinsic part of the cultural fabric.”

From bombsite bicycle racers in 1940s London to the Acid House ravers of 1980s Northern England, the Museum of Youth Culture aims to tell the extraordinary everyday stories of growing up in Britain through its unique collection of images, while championing the impact of youth on modern society.

“Most of the time, the images we collect had been photographed by participants of those scenes themselves, like when someone had a camera with them at a gig or a rave,” Jamie explains.

The project is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, a UK government-backed grant to sustain and transform the country’s heritage. It now has a youth board panel and continues to grow thanks to the support of volunteers. “Our main goal is to get young people involved to help grow the archives,” the Creative Manager adds.

Growing up in Britain

Throughout the pandemic, the museum has received thousands of submissions from the general public through a highly successful online campaign - Grown Up in Britain - inviting the public to submit their own photographs, showing what their teens where like across the country and challenging traditional stereotypes about young people.

“We wanted to gather stories that were a little bit less about London, and more about the rest of Britain. We also started focusing on showing the perspectives of more diverse groups, like Black British culture and LGBTQ+ communities, directly from the authentic participants of those scenes,” Jamie says.

As the campaign evolved, the museum received about 7000 entries of amateur photography representing teen life in Britain. Due to the pandemic’s travel limitations, the last two years of the campaign were held online. But now the teams is back on the road, touring across the country, from high streets to pubs and long forgotten rave venues, to collect people’s personal photographs. “We wanna see those pictures of your bedroom, your first club night that you went to, the Dr Martens boots you kept hold of.”

Jamie explains that the collection doesn't only look at subcultures or alternative scenes, but to all those identifiable styles and experiences of youth.


“We also have images about work life and family life. One picture shows a girl starting her first job at McDonald’s, she's in her McDonald's uniform posing with a box of frozen chips. When you look at it, you’re just like: that image would never have ended up in a museum before!”

A post-pandemic youth culture

Has the pandemic itself spurred new youth culture movements? Jamie doesn't hesitate.

Two teenage girls sit atop tree branches and look confidently down at the camera
(Credit: Museum of Youth Culture)

“At first, isolation created panic (How are we going to keep culture alive? How can we keep live music going?), but then it gave rise to new experiences, like virtual club nights or DJ sets on screen, and I think that helped a lot of incredible artists to come out of lockdown.”

A focus for the Museum post-Covid will be the exploration of the nostalgia that surfaced in lockdown. “People were having a sort of a phantom nostalgia for periods that they weren't growing up in, a lot more normal ones, particularly the 90s,” Jamie continues. “I heard of a lot of young producers and DJs who have been able to reflect backwards. And that's something that I think we didn't have the time to do before.”

The Museum is now working on collecting material on the emo scene of the early 2000s, which has been undergoing a revival phase since the pandemic. “Emo is an area that we don’t have very much about in the archive, and we realised that if everyone is getting nostalgic now, we need to start bringing in images from that scene.”

The means young people use to express themselves have also changed a lot. , The archive recognises the importance of social media in shaping present and future youth cultures.

“We are now looking much more at online cultures across the UK now, whereas before we would never even thought about documenting that. A big part of our next museum project is going to be around archiving social media somehow, we don't quite know how yet,” explains Jamie.

The Museum looks for a new home

After a few months exhibiting in 154 Shaftesbury Avenue, London, the Museum is now looking for a permanent home.

Black and white image of a shop interior with punters browsing the books assembled on tables and examining the photos on display
The Museum's short-lived tenancy at Shaftesbury Avenue (Credit: Museum of Youth Culture)

The current HQ is at the mezzanine floor of East-London music venue Printworks, but the team is still looking for a new space that “is going to be a bigger industrial unit, where student, researchers and supporters will be able to come down and have a look at the images of our collection as well as use the space for their own work. So, it will be a library, gallery and working space.”

In the meantime, the Museum of Youth Culture is opening a few pop up shops across the city to fund its continuous expansion. From rare records and zines to subculture books, prints and t-shirts, all the merchandise is themed with the values of the project. A shop has already open in the heart of London’s West End, at 35 Beak Street, with a second upcoming one in Shoreditch Boxpark.

“We have a proven track record in re-activating empty or unused shop space, stimulating interest and building footfall to the high street,” commented the Museum of Youth Culture’s founder Jon Swinstead. “Our new space will help to bring some of the Museum's archival content to life. The proceeds from the store help fund the Museum's education youth work across the UK and the importance of documenting this social history. But we are still searching for a permanent home.”

If you want to learn more about the Museum of Youth Culture, why not visit their website?


Gaia Lamperti is a freelance journalist and member of RAR's editorial committee. Insta: @Gaias


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