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Museums are tapping into the history of youth cultures
Digital Photography
Catherine Kennedy
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Across the country, museums and exhibitions are shining a spotlight on iconic elements of youth through the decades.
The world’s first digital museum about youth culture was launched in September on Google Arts and Culture. The venture is a collaboration with the not-for-profit Museum of Youth Culture, which hopes to have a physical home by 2023. 
In the meantime, the new digital museum features more than 16,000 photographs and 40 curated exhibits, along with videos and playlists, which chart youth influences from postwar Britain to today. 
Images from personal collections play a key role. Jamie Brett, who leads the museum’s creative projects, says: “A photograph from someone who was at a rave and has taken a photo on a Polaroid camera starts to build up a picture of what it was really like at the time. So, some of the material on Google is people’s submissions, which feels very authentic.”
This submission process has confirmed that when the physical museum launches, it will be heavily weighted towards personal photographs, says Brett, with an inaugural pop-up exhibition scheduled for central London this month. 
Dealing with pixelated files from Facebook proved challenging at times but, once overcome, the images have contemporary relevance. Photos of children playing on bomb sites start to draw parallels between what’s going on today with young people. “Every generation is generally quite rebellious after the war,” says Brett. “Everyone’s got the same attitude, but they don’t realise it.” 
Looking closely at this rebellious postwar attitude is the Leicester-based project, The Mods: Shaping a Generation, which was developed by author Shaun Knapp and design agency owner Joe Nixon. 
The programme, which was linked to the 40th anniversary of the release of the cult Mod film, Quadrophenia, explores the 1960s scene in Leicester and Nottingham and how this was represented in terms of lifestyle, music, fashion, politics and aspiration – and considers how this affected the East Midlands and the wider world.
Between April and June 2019, Leicester’s New Walk Museum and Art Gallery hosted the main exhibition, while several fringe events ran alongside. People lingered to listen to the 1960s soundtrack, with the multimedia and sensory aspects proving effective. 
“We had an old scarf with Youth Dew perfume on it, which was the prominent smell in the clubs and pubs at the time,” says Nixon. “People broke down in tears remembering how their grandmother used to smell. There’s something about a smell that can really take somebody back to a time and a place.”
Meanwhile, Milton Keynes is celebrating its role in another area of youth culture, skateboarding, with MK Skate, a project supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund (until 6 January 2020). 
The programme uses film and photography, as well as oral histories and personal items – from pro skateboards to 1970s Polaroids and 1990s baggy jeans – to tell the stories of local skaters. Highlighting Milton Keynes’ main skating spots, an on-street exhibition winds its way through a series of underpasses, while the shopping centre is also hosting an exhibition (until 22 December).
“We’ve got a mixture of ages involved,” says Caterina Loriggio, the creative producer of the programme. “It’s been interesting for them learning from each other. While they’re cross-generational in their skating, I don’t think they talk about history. So this exhibition will really help with that.”
The culture of skateboarding is a generous one, but this generosity provided an unexpected challenge when collecting items: skaters don’t keep many of their old boards and sneakers, often giving them to younger skaters.
Such community spirit, however, is at the heart of the programme itself. Loriggio says: “We want people to understand the importance of skateboarding to their town and vice versa – that understanding of shared space and how people live 
well in cities together.” 
It’s a concept well worth grasping.
Catherine Kennedy is a freelance writer

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