Rage and revolution: the exhibition preserving Britain's punk past

Rage and revolution: the exhibition preserving Britain's punk past

The organisers behind a new show at Leicester Museum & Art Gallery tell us about the importance of celebrating cultural heritage, and what punk means today.

Depending on who you are, punk can be seen as either a relic, a revolution, a farce, a fad, or an ongoing approach to social change. It’s been almost five decades since punk pogoed out the womb a bastard; infecting the British youth, swearing on the telly and whipping the tabloid press into a frenzy.

As an ethos it’s still present in corners of our society today, whether that’s in the direct action of Just Stop Oil, the renegade art of Olaula Slawn, the mutant fashion of Claire Barrow, or the intense music of bands like Benefits. One of the more unexpected developments in the story of punk, however, is the emergence of exhibitions dedicated to it appearing in national museums and high-end art galleries. Something that was once so valiantly anti-establishment, so aggressively adolescent, is now being gawked at by bored kids on school trips alongside pointillist landscapes and ancient kitchenware.

'Punk: Rage and Revolution' is a new exhibition at Leicester Museum & Art Gallery which impressively charts the story of punk from the ‘60s to now. When I visit the museum, I find the retrospective set up between rooms of rusty coins and dinosaur bones. Inside studded jackets sit motionless on mannequins and “Neat Neat Neat” by The Damned plays at a reasonable volume, the defiant spirit of punk barely contained like a hyperactive child in a GP’s waiting room. Original Vivienne Westwood clothing, personal photographs, battered old records, sentimental diary entries, short films from the ‘70s and iconic artworks by Jamie Reid tell the tale of the movement. Starting with ‘60s proto-punk playwright Joe Orton, it takes us on a crash course through to the MC5, the ’77 UK explosion, Rock Against Racism and beyond.

The exhibition is a collaboration between social history author Shaun Knapp, ex-punk and charity director Christina Wigmore and designer Joe Nixon. Huck caught up with the three curators to chat about the project, Leicester’s relationship to punk, and the importance of preserving the UK’s cultural heritage.

Hi folks, nice to meet you all. What’re your backgrounds in relation to this exhibition?

Christina: I work for Soft Touch Arts which is a charity here in Leicester. It’s been going for about 36 years and we work with young people - giving them an opportunity to build confidence and express themselves through art, media and music. Maybe when they've got a challenge in their life or they’re not doing well in mainstream education. I work getting them involved in stuff, building their life skills for future opportunities.

Shaun: I’m a social history author who looks at counterculture. My specific interest is research and interviewing different people.

Joe: I'm the co-founder of Arch Creative, which is a local design agency. Us three worked closely together on the [2019] 'Mods' exhibition as well, which was a huge success. We had around 40,000 people in less than three months. We envisage this one's going to be even more popular because of the national content that we've got in here, as well as the local stories.

Is there anything different in your approach to this as opposed to your 'Mods' exhibition?

Shaun: We really wanted young people to be at the heart of this one. We worked with about 250 young people across the city. We set briefs for the students at De Montfort University. We've worked with some of the partners that we have, like a dance company who are going to be performing a piece tonight by listening to the interviews from the punks and responding to that. We also did a sustainable fashion project with the young people using those punk kind of DIY techniques. All sorts!

Where did you source everything else from?

Shaun: One of the things we regretted with 'Mods' was the fact that we didn't include any local mod clothing. So when it came time to do this exhibition we asked around and there weren’t just clothes, there were photographs and diaries and scrapbooks and paintings, etcetera. So we decided to include as much local stuff as we possibly could.

Christina: I know a lot of the local punks and involving local people is a big part of the exhibition; including those stories that wouldn't otherwise be told. People have loaned us their precious punk items. I was around at that time and I got to know lot of punks because of the music. Leicester was quite a grim place at the time, not a great future for young people. Then there was that proclamation of “No future!” and this punk music came out and it was fantastic. For me, seeing bands like Slits, and other women like Polystyrene was really exciting, you know? Instead of just oldies and prog rock, which seemed like a million miles away from everyone's lives.

Joe: Gathering the content was a huge process, very laborious. Museums are generally used to plug-in-and-play exhibitions where everything slots into place, but we've had literally hundreds of different loans from not just Leicester but all over the country. We have Jamie Reid's huge eight-metre artwork – his pièce de résistance of the Sex Pistols story, which is incredible to have. Roger K. Burton, the world famous curator, we've got his collection of original punk era clothing and artefacts, including original Dame Vivienne Westwood and McLaren pieces. This is the first retrospective of her work since she's died. We hope to sort of bring her memory back to life, in a respectful way.

Top to bottom: Punks then and now: Fitz Samuel, Blink (co-owner of music venue The Donkey), Chris Wigmore. Modern images by Joe Nixon.

What are the links between Leicester and the punk scene?

Joe: There's this unknown story about Leicester’s creatives and their connection to punk, which we really want to shine a light on in this exhibition. We dedicated a really big section to seven characters who are pretty pivotal within this scene. We’ve got a film dedicated to Leicester playwright and author Joe Orton, who was a huge inspiration for Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood. His plays were quite shocking and provocative. He was one of the key inspirations for them in terms of their attitude and their rebellious, provocative take at the time. He was also an inspiration to Jamie Reid because he created collage artworks and ransom note-style stuff as well. He was a proto-punk.

There’s also Stephane Rayner from Leicester, who started Boy London. That was a punk brand initially but went on to become a real global phenomenon. He was also co-founder of Acme Attractions, which was based on The King's Road and became a bit of a rival to Vivienne Westwood. Don Letts was the shop boy there and he started pumping out the reggae and dub in the shop. He helped bring reggae into the punk scene. Jeanette Lee was the shop girl and she went on to become a member of Public Image Ltd and she worked at Rough Trade Records and became a manager of loads of amazing artists.

Why have you chosen to do the exhibition now?

Christina: There is so much in society right now that is comparable to what was happening in the late ‘70s. You know, the cost of living crisis, strikes, another Cold War, an actual war going on, the rise of internet misogynists like Andrew Tate…

Joe: We asked a lot of young people what punk means to them today and what it means in today's society, and it’s been really interesting. In many ways, we're almost repeating that piece of history with some of the stuff that's been going on politically over the last few years. Also in terms of activism as well; if you look at punk in terms of Rock Against Racism it correlates to a lot of stuff going on now with Black Lives Matter. So there are similarities.

Why is it important to celebrate our cultural history?

Joe: Unless we document these stories, they’ll get lost forever. It’s really important to capture these memories for future posterity and also to learn from as well. This whole archive we’ve built-up is going to [London’s] Museum of Youth Culture, and it’s also going to the University of Leicester's new archive hub. It's not just this exhibition, the project is much bigger than that, really.

Shaun: It’s important because it’s heritage at risk. When you say that people automatically think of buildings and castles and steam trains and all that kind of stuff, but people's memories are too.

Christina: A lot of young people I work with thought that punk was just about fashion and spiky haircuts. They’ve learned that it was different. Young people back then stood up to things like racism. They said no, we want to change things. Through this exhibition you'll see quotes by young people about what they think about some of the more contentious imagery from Malcolm McClaren and Vivienne Westwood. They are commenting on what they think about it, and how things are for them today. It’s not just a nostalgic exhibition, by any means.

Top to bottom: Don Letts and Jeannette Lee, Sally Moss, Jack English, Andy Moss. Photos by Joe Nixon.

Do you think it’s strange that something so anti-establishment and rooted in protest and street culture now has a place in posh art galleries and museums?

Christina: It is strange and it has its challenges, but actually it's quite good to bring it into somewhere like this. I think it's interesting to break down some of those barriers of what kinds of exhibitions happen in museums. It should be quite challenging and we have some quite evocative imagery, but it’s part of our culture.

Shaun: When these people pass away their book closes and that's their story gone. So it's essential for us to actually capture those stories before it's too late. The museum is with us on this. I take my hat off to the museum, really, for giving us the go-ahead and supporting us throughout the whole process. I think they were quite brave in taking it on.

Lastly, what do you want people to take away from the exhibition?

Joe: Punk’s legacy is everlasting, really – the ethos, the DIY spirit. You can do what you want, you can pick up a guitar, and even if you can't sing you can start a band. That mentality still lives on today. The creative side of things has lasted. That get-up-and-go, that opportunist attitude, is what it's all about, really.

Shaun: The whole ethos of punk created a lot of different elements. When you walk into the exhibition it's almost as though you're walking into a giant scrapbook from 1977 - you've got the music, you've got the art, photography, the clothes, the writing. These all add up to attitude. I think that's one of the things which the exhibition demonstrates is how that attitude actually manifests itself in different forms.

Christina: A lot of those issues are still here in society. It’s really interesting to look back at the past in order to move forward in the future. There are a lot of lessons that can be learned from the way things happened in the seventies. It’s important for people to understand how young people feel today and what their interpretation of punk is.

Punk: Rage & Revolution is running until 3rd September 2023 at Leicester Museum & Art Gallery.

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