How Punk was Institutionalised: The capitalist hijacking of youth contempt by Stacey Richards

Punk has refused to die as so many other subcultures have.  It keeps resurfacing, in different forms around the world in Tokyo, Berlin and Paris.  Why? More than a fad, Punk is a deep-rooted part of British cultural history. As Vivienne Westwood (Westwood and Kelly, 2014) said

Give me a punk and I’ll show you the man.”

One man of example is John Lydon, even though the Punk heyday is now in recess its ethos remains in its first generation and who even now are revered by the current generation of Punk loyalists.

Celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the movement,  “Punk 1976-78 “at the British Library was an exhibition especially focused on punks early beginnings in London and the influence this had on fashion, music and culture.


(By Stacey Richards 2016, British Library)

On arrival no information leaflets were available for the exhibit, as it was only classed as a small piece. A small leaflet with key images on would of informed the exhibit visitor to understand the thought process behind the curator’s installation celebrating 40 years of punk and how important this subculture has been, not just to the new waves of youth but also many generational and culturally changing effects this has had on the population.

One entrance to the exhibition was up the stairs to the left hand side, where you were greeted with a large neon pink background with black text discussing the exhibition and what it was trying to say. The text was clear and easy to read, although half way through it most visitors just moved on into the exhibition, which adhered to a chronological timeline.

Only after having gone further into the exhibition did I realise I had entered at the wrong point. Having missed the opening pieces, which explained what was happening in British society within the years 76-78.  Some better signage would have avoided this.

Aside from the somewhat peculiar start point, the layout felt fluid and easy to navigate. The exhibition cases felt thought out over the chosen objects and the placement of them. The use of neon highlighter colours through added a nice touch. It drew you into what seemed to be key aspects of the exhibition. It had structure in the order of the items and information was shown on clear white background with black text, making this easy to read.

The objects on show were clearly linked within their cube exhibition spaces, the quality of the items used I thought made good connections between each item used within them. No object felt as if it was in the wrong segment or out of place.

Lighting throughout was dark in areas, which did hinder the ability to read the text plaques accompanying items. Spotlights on key pieces and information of importance felt perhaps like the curator was trying to make us feel like we were at a gig, the main focus being the band in the piece.

No background music was used through the exhibition, but you could hear pieces throughout the exhibition, especially the recordings of the unedited ‘Anarchy in the UK’ track.

The use of the audio headsets at certain points throughout the exhibit gave you the feeling, albeit for a short moment that you were watching The Sex Pistols with its crackling and live atmospheric recordings. The main audio listening station was placed next to a lime green backdrop of live performance photos of The Sex Pistols. Photos were shot on Polaroid film, perhaps trying to catch that spirit of a live gig.

Although the exhibition was interesting and informative, it failed to capture one aspect of Punk, which was that anybody could form a band. It had a social inclusion and an anti-elitist standpoint. This in my mind should have been the whole idea of this exhibition, the deep-seated meaning of the Punk movement between 76-78.

Ted Polhemus wrote (2010, p.132), “..1976 London…where economic, social and cultural conditions gave Punks’ cry of ‘No Future’ a ring of truth and realism.”

The punk movement made their own future disregarding social structures that had previously bound them. Punk says: you who came from the gutter, the roughest estates in Britain, even the middle class, you can become whatever it is you want to be, regardless of your social class stature. The message being: to break the mould and rebel against society, if Johnny Rotten can do it, so can you.

Yes, the exhibition informs you of how Punk started and key influences of bands such as The Sex Pistols in the UK. Does it give you an insight into an underground culture? To an extent you can say it does. It is an exhibition well thought out and although has some brief confusion at the entrance point, it was on the whole an enjoyable experience that did educate you.

Do I agree with punk being shown in such a curated way? The spark, the anger and disdain felt by young people during an era of oppressive society is lost in translation in the context of the exhibition.

The exhibition did try to bring this sentiment in via the audiovisual content but ultimately Punk can never be portrayed in such a serious institutional surrounding. Punk is the uproar of a generation that can only be felt by being part of it.

The Westwood quote above was nowhere to be seen even though it sums up what the exhibition was trying to achieve: to give the public of today, the chance to see what Punk did between 1976-78.

The ending to the exhibition talks about what happened after 1978: how Punk was absorbed into not only the music scene but also fashion and literature. That this particular youth subculture stood it’s ground and continues to influence cultures around the world today.

The most successful part of the exhibit shows a set up of a record store: a whole wall is lined with vinyl record sleeves of bands that were inspired by these two historical years.  The room has listening points for you to select bands to immerse yourself in. It didn’t come across as too corny or staged but genuinely felt as if the curatorial team had taken this end point into serious consideration.

The last piece to this exhibition is clear and to the point, in bold black lettering on the very last wall it simply says:

 Now form a band



  • Polhemus, T. (2010) Street Style. Jon Swinstead.
  • Westwood, V. and Kelly I. (2014) Vivienne Westwood. London: Picador.
  • Worsley, H. ( 2011) 100 Ideas That Changed Fashion. London. Laurence King Publishing Ltd.







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