These Photos Explore What It’s Like to Be a British Teenager

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Grown Up in Britain: 100 Years of Teenage Kicks
Grown Up in Britain: 100 Years of Teenage KicksPhotography by Rebecca Lewis

A new exhibition at the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum in Coventry celebrates the lives of teenagers in the UK from the 1920s up until today through photographs, objects and stories

“Are teenage dreams so hard to beat?” asked John O’Neill in 1977, penning lyrics that would secure The Undertones fame the following year, and provide generations of amped-up adolescents an anthem all of their own. With Grown Up in Britain: 100 Year of Teenage Kicks, which recently opened at the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum in Coventry, the Museum of Youth Culture considers similar territory, celebrating the lives of teenagers from the 1920s through to today, examining what it means to be a teenager and what their impact on culture is.

“It came from that sense of rebellion that underpins everything in the collection,” Lisa der Weduwe, archive projects manager at the Museum of Youth Culture, explains of the show’s moniker. “Young people pushing things forward, creating their own spaces.” Launched via a campaign of the same name in November 2019, the exhibition marries personal archives with work by well-known photographers such as Anita Corbin and Gavin Watson. “Everyone’s been young, so everyone can be part of this museum,” says der Weduwe. “Before this point our collections started in the 1950s, looking at post-war youth culture, but through Grown Up in Britain we got our first photographs from the 1920s – the oldest we have now is 1901 – and they don’t look out of place in our collection. They fit.”

“There’s quotes from Greek philosophers complaining about young people being rude and disrespectful,” she continues, “so those photographs really prove we can go back, that there’s an undercurrent to youth culture – even though we didn’t have the word ‘teenager’, there was still something going on.” Commonly perceived as an invention of the mid-20th century – when the word properly began infiltrating the wider lexicon – the teenager has since been privy to negative press and a culture that would posit blame on people just starting to vote. By celebrating adolescence and highlighting the shared interests of young people across different generations, the exhibition aims to reconcile stereotypes with lived experiences.

“This was the first time we’ve actually asked, what are the things people are talking about? What are those really important common threads?” explains der Weduwe, relaying the show’s core intentions. “What we noticed is that it doesn’t matter what generation you talk about; so many things, emotions and passions, are the same.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, most people brought up music she says, noting the museum’s collection of record sleeves, gig photography and ticket stubs. “Young people are so often at the forefront of music, technology, fashion, protests and social justice because they’ve got such a fresh sense of awareness and feeling of discovery. Causing a bit of havoc, having a disagreement between generations, so much of what our world is like now comes from that, those teenage kicks of young people pushing and changing things.”

While photography forms the bulk of the show’s offering, objects and other ephemera also feature – there’s even a Royal Enfield Constellation motorcycle – with immersive spaces portraying bedrooms and first jobs too, much of it sourced from the general public. “In a way [the lockdowns] enabled us to reach more people than we could have done travelling across the UK,” says der Weduwe, reflecting on how Covid-19 shaped the final exhibition. “It was a real growth period for the museum, and the submissions are really beautiful, evocative bodies of work that in many ways tell the wider story of what it was like growing up in the UK over the last 100 years.”

Grown Up in Britain: 100 Years of Teenage Kicks is at Herbert Art Gallery & Museum in Coventry until October 30, 2022.