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Two environmental protestors camping out in a tree during the Newbury Bypass Protest, 1990s by Adrian Fisk. Courtesy of the MoYC

In conversation with Jon Swinstead, head of the Museum of Youth Culture

“Music is in every single photo, it’s in every piece of ephemera,” says Jon Swinstead, describing the pieces that make up the Museum of Youth Culture, an emerging online collection and soon to be physical space, dedicated to the styles, sounds and social movements innovated by young people in the UK over the past 100 years.

Swinstead has long been fascinated with the changing face of British youth culture. With a digital archive in the works since 1996, he has always championed and understood its society-based value. “I just always knew it would be necessary and relevant,” he explains, “and no one was collecting it. Even now there isn’t a designated area of heritage interest in youth culture, I couldn’t get my head around this!”

Youth culture for me, even back then, seemed like Britain’s best export. It’s such an important part of our identity, and yet we don’t or haven’t celebrated it on anything like the level that it deserves. It is probably the most British of things.

Here, MAG_BTM talks to Jon about what’s in store for the Museum, what to expect from the archive and the importance of amortising collections.

Do you feel that the youth are a bit maligned in society as a whole?

Young people are meant to rebel. Their brains change at a certain age, they take more risks, and they push away. It’s a very creative period in life where they should be allowed to express themselves; essentially to innovate. That’s what the future is about.

For me, the world has become a place where the media particularly will talk down young people. All the time. The system and the police will see a group of young people and see a threat, not an opportunity. It’s important that we work as a museum to represent young people, their opportunities and power, and to make good things happen to try and change the narrative away from a group of young kids being somehow a ‘problem’.

A diverse youth engagement is at the heart of the Museum, incorporating skills training, talks and workshops to make youth culture accessible to everyone. “There’s always a new generation of young people coming through. Looking at how we celebrate them going forward is about inspiring these groups to positively express themselves. By giving them the connections to the previous generations that came before, it can be empowering, to help them understand what young people have done and achieved, and the impact of youth on modern society.

Who are you talking about, when you use the term youth?

The age range of youth is an interesting question, isn’t it? I think it starts for everyone at different ages. I’ve always argued that youth is not an age, it’s a mindset.

The Museum of Youth Culture is for everyone, not just for young people – everybody has had a youth. Everyone. Youth culture doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be a hardcore punk to be super cool. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about what you did in that important period where you’re young and breaking rules a little bit, pushing boundaries and exploring, trying to find your identity, to help you settle on what, and who you truly are. Youth culture formed who I am today. Those beliefs don’t leave. I think, even as a 52-year-old, my youth is still with me every day.

MAG_BTM is about the music. How much is music a part of your youth archive?

It’s in everything. There are pictures of Bowie in there, big names and all that, but we don’t focus on the artists as such. We’re about the crowds, about the backstage, or the view from the stage looking out into the crowd. It’s the people for us. That’s what the culture is about.

All the identities, all the styles in our archive; you can relate to what kind of music’s being listened to when you look at almost any picture. I mean, music is just such a fundamental part of youth, isn’t it? You have a look. You have a music. You have a mindset. You can’t extract music from youth culture. It’s a fundamental building block.

Did you base your archive on any other kind of models or archives out there?

The answer is no. As an individual I don’t like to do things the way that others do. To some extent you must learn from what other people have done – but we’ve tried to push the boundaries for the Museum, to find how else we might do it.

For example, even the content we were looking at originally – no one’s really valued it; it’s unlike anything that’s been seen before. Anyone can be included, it’s about being a collection from the public, and that’s a harder sell than many archives out there which are put together for commercial purposes.

Most recently, what we’re doing is a lot of work on is archiving digital media now, like social media. That is important content that needs archiving. Even the comments that people post online underneath an image, that narrative and form of content is a whole different realm. Eventually, we want everything to be visible publicly on tour or online, we don’t want anything hidden or stored away.

Where do you start with archiving from social media?

Social media is so instant. It can happen in a day. It can explode. And you suddenly have all this further commentary and understanding about something you couldn’t have known about before.

We embrace that side of it and sometimes exhibit social media, which is kind of a weird thing to do, printing out pictures and comments of something digital. But people are fascinated by it. Moving it into physical and finding different ways of showing it, even mixed in with analogue, is important. For example, we always have a photobooth with our exhibitions, it’s really popular! We also have a dark room for workshops too.

For us, the challenge and the fun is in breaking the mould, not to assume that young people just want everything digital and perfect. They don’t! When we do talks and exhibitions and events, most of the people that come demographically are under twenty-five, and they’re coming to see something that happened 30, 40, 50, 60 years ago.

How do you plan on funding the archive?

We intend to be a non-profit organisation, profitable regardless of funding. Our ambition is funding will be spent one hundred percent on the projects that the funding is for. We’ll continue to do this through forms of consultancy around youth culture, licensing and working with brands; we’re not an agency of any kind, we’re just youth culture specialists.

Fred Perry, Dr Martins and others have been good to us over the years, a lot of brands are strong within youth culture historically, but outside of that, we do a lot of work with retail, collaborations, books and zines, that’s a very strong area for us; we’re a label of our own if you like. 

 Education is also going to play a big part in funding as well. We’ve developed our own syllabuses and lesson plans available through a subscription-based platform to higher, further education and even later to schools as well.

All of these things are how we want to model our business so that we can stay away from sort of ‘piecemeal’ licensing.

What are your future plans for the museum?

We’ve spent twenty-five years building the content and are excited to say we have been working on a permanent site in Birmingham for the museum; it’s going to open in 2025.

I think it’s good to get out of London. Birmingham has the youngest demographic of any city in Europe, and its cultural diversity is obvious. It’s got a good music background and we’re partnering with the Birmingham Music Archive to house a permanent collection of Birmingham music within the Museum. Getting up into the northern cities or even just the provincial cities is giving the future because it is about the future, giving the power back to young people is fundamental to what we do.

There’s 70 million people in the UK. And everyone’s got history, grandparents and parents and memories passed down through them. It’s a job that will never end. This landscape of youth culture, we celebrate the history. But the point is to create real social change moving forwards.