Q&A | ‘We want to make people realise that their moment is as important as anyone else’s’ - Museums Association

Q&A | ‘We want to make people realise that their moment is as important as anyone else’s’

Museum of Youth Culture founder, Jon Swinstead, on how the institution is engaging audiences as it settles into its new home
Young people
Philippa Kelly
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Jon Swinstead (left) and Museum of Youth Culture team in-store, 2021
Jon Swinstead (left) and Museum of Youth Culture team in-store, 2021 Courtesy of the Museum of Youth Culture

Following a successful crowdfunding campaign, the Museum of Youth Culture recently announced that its pop-up space on London’s Shaftsbury Avenue would remain open throughout 2022. 

Having previously faced being homeless, the museum will now host a changing programme of exhibitions and events, exploring fashion and self-expression, protest culture, LGBTQIA+ pride and Black British history. At the heart of the museum is a photographic archive, documenting youth and subculture movements over the last 100 years. 

Jon Swinstead is the museum’s founder and has been driving the project across many incarnations for a quarter of a century. He talked to Museums Journal about his journey in founding the museum, what an emerging museum needs today and his hopes for a permanent Museum of Youth Culture.

How did the museum come in to being?

It dates back 25 years. I was running some youth publications, essentially based around London clubbing and nightlife and trying to find images all the time. It began to form an idea that we should be documenting – authentically documenting – what's going on, on a regular basis and then collecting that, because it was all British social history in the making. 

I ran it essentially as a hobby in the background for 15 years, then 10 years ago, there was a moment of, “I don't want to own a photo library”. So, I began researching non-profit and that’s how it became the idea of museum.

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We got our big break in 2015, with a three-month residency in the Undercroft at the Southbank Centre, as part of the Festival of Love. Since then, it’s been a period of pop-ups and preservation in equal measure. We coined the phrase “preserve to inspire” early on, which summed up the two things we want to do most.

What is the concept behind the museum?

The reason for the collection was the content and the authenticity, the people and the social history, and the value beyond money, the value to society.

We believe fundamentally that what we represent, in pictures and ephemera and everything here, is positive self-expression. It's creativity, it's people showing off or experimenting or rebelling one way or another in order to express themselves, get their ideas out there. Creativity is right at the core of what we believe.

The exterior of the Museum of Youth Culture photographed from across a road.
Museum of Youth Culture, January 2022 - Museum of Youth Culture
You’ve recently moved to your semi-permanent space on Shaftsbury Avenue. What has this meant for the museum?

The idea in the space here was to be slightly different than we've been before. We like to always challenge ourselves, push on a little bit more, try something new. There is a vibe as you come in that we've always created, the idea is that the things you see around you, they will bring back and make you reminisce, everyone will find something that that they can relate to.

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We have this cafe lounge area, surrounded by books about the history of youth cultures and magazines, fanzines, zines and posters. In the same breath, you've got an installation of a teenage bedroom, an exhibition based around wheels - getting your wheels or your freedom. There's the gift shop element and then downstairs is an interactive digital event space. In the evenings, that transforms into a space for book launches, record single releases, photographer talks and all those kinds of things. 

I think any museum with ambitions is going to have all of those things, it's going to be running broader events, as well as showing its work, it will have a cafe and the gift shop alongside it. So, I think this is maybe the first time that we've incorporated all the ingredients.

What challenges have you faced and how have you worked to overcome them?

Our biggest challenge, historically, has been getting people to understand that youth culture is not specific to a few people who are at the forefront of the scene. I think that's the important thing, that everyone has a youth culture, everyone goes through that period and making sure people realise that their moment is as important as anyone else’s.

In order to tackle that, we created a thing called Grown up in Britain, which was to democratise the idea of youth culture and just say to people, what was it like growing up? It's a picture of someone's view of what being young is. We won't judge and we won't select; if it's not offensive or upsetting, then it'll be represented inside the museum.

Of course, the big challenge is a permanent home. Finding a permanent home as an independent museum, without substantial backing or philanthropy, is super challenging. We've been very resourceful and very good at building the relationships we have with landlords in order to pop up a lot, but it’s the next big logical step and we're ready for that step. 

Museum of Youth Culture, 2022 Museum of Youth Culture
What are your plans for the coming year and beyond?

In a dream world, we're here, we're here for the whole year and beyond, that's what we're working on. One of the important things, is that we have no intention of having a huge institutional building. That's not what is required these days, I think I think a modern museum needs to look at flexibility. 

So, for us, our goal is to be in London. But we’re also going to have a home in Birmingham, which we got planning permission on earlier last year, where we're going to have our headquarters. That'll be ready in 2025. Then we're hoping to open a third site in Glasgow, the idea then being that we have these three regional hubs, all of which are sensibly sized and manageable. We'll be able to access, from those bases, the whole country, and to do regional pop-ups along the lines of what we've always done here.

That's our view on the future of how we do this, especially given that the nature of our work is very national – a punk in Glasgow is very different to a punk in Birmingham.

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