Vaughan Allen: "Popular culture has failed in museum and exhibition terms"

By Vaughan Allen | 17 October 2009
A picture of a man on a bike from a computer game

(Above) Computer game exhibition Videogame Nation

Opinion: Ahead of an expected announcement on the National Football Museum's controversial move from Preston's Deepdale to Manchester's Urbis, Vaughan Allen, Chief Executive of Urbis, explains why he believes popular culture has failed to prosper in UK exhibitions

"Writing about music," so the quote goes, "is like dancing to architecture." Variously attributed, most frequently to Elvis Costello (who got a strangely free ride from critics for most of his career), the quote can easily be applied to attempts to set up museums or individual exhibitions focusing on popular culture.

How to capture the verve, the excitement, the sheer obsessive passion that grips fans of pop music, video-games, football, film and television, in an exhibition space where visitors (usually) have a whole set of preconceptions about what they will experience and how they will interact with the displays?

How to preserve and exhibit that raw sense of joy which forces fans to stand and queue for hours to buy the latest Call of Duty game, Harry Potter book or Tinchy Stryder LP? And why bother?

Popular culture has, broadly, failed in museum and exhibition terms. There are a few minor exceptions, but attempts to found museums based around still-living, still-developing expressions of popular activity have floundered on one simple issue: if it's already out there, already happening, it can't be captured and can't be (literally) encased.

It's a matter of emotion, time and of substance. Popular music is not about flicking through vast databases of family trees, or of looking at the actual guitar Jimi Hendrix played on at Woodstock.

It's about emotional connections. It’s about scene, subculture, a guarding of secret knowledge. And, above all, it’s about something that's fleetingly experienced and then passes away.

A photo of a promotional poster for a music album

Home Grown, The Story of UK Hip-Hop is currently on show at Urbis

Mass culture is represented in terms of the detritus produced – the tickets, the guitars, the posters, the fan-magazines – but these displays never get to the heart of the power of pop culture.

Culture of the past (and preferably long-past) is safe, broken down into images, displayed carefully in cases and boxes, with the joy, the excitement and the affection taken out.

Of course, once taken out of the context of that initial emotional connection, it becomes increasingly difficult for the viewer to understand why anyone would be interested in this stuff in the first place.

For the real fans, who understand the scene, re-presentation in an exhibition context is simply bewildering.

It's here that journalistic-criticism and exhibition design have more in common than might at first seem apparent. Both involve a certain separation from their subjects, a distance developed from the object of their enquiry, a re-ordering to tell a slightly (or vastly) different narrative from that originally on offer.

A picture of a statue on a square with a medallion around its neck

True Yank draped a Manchester monument of Abraham Lincoln in bling. Ian Williams, © Urbis and Leon Reid IV

Perhaps (and I say this with trepidation as an ex-critic and a current curator), the problem is not so much with the material as with the people presenting it. To put it in more simple terms, as the spandex-clad genius David Lee Roth once put it, "rock critics like Elvis Costello because rock critics look like Elvis Costello."

It's 11 years since the now infamous Rock Critical List made the rounds of pop music critics, completists, and controversialists.

Pseudonymously written by JoJoDancer (a reference to a 1996 Richard Pryor film), and later attributed to Spin editor Charles Aaron, the list laid into the prominent rock critics of the day in terms now wearily familiar from the oceanic depths of bile produced by the blogosphere.

Of leading UK critic Simon Reynolds, for instance, the list claimed that "no writer has ever made dance music seem so hysterically important, yet so impenetrably dull." Reynolds, one of the recent greats of UK music journalism, has penned thousands of articles on acid house, techno and rap without beginning to touch the joy of dancing for eight hours.

This critical approach, placing things in glass cases, fails to touch the heart of pop culture's fascination and strength, whether in journalism or in the exhibition hall.

It fails to engage with the emotion involved, or the impact of the time passing outside the museum. How, then, to represent a culture that might be changing through the entirety of an exhibition run? Well, we could start by giving up that attempt at impartial expertise drilled into the curatorial class since the enlightenment.

Stuff undoubtedly has a place. Touching on the nostalgia, the completeness, the "oh, I'd forgotten them" side of human emotion and connectivity, and sometimes simply to reflect the sheer breadth and bizarreness of a subculture.

But it's stuff that's not presented in a unitary, unified, way, acknowledging that a collection can never be complete.

A picture of a Union Jack flag with a punk depiction of the Queen in the middle

Punk: Sex, Seditionaries and the Sex Pistols was at Urbis in 2005. © The Hospital

Key to pop culture is the sense of imagined community. From music to sport to film, subgenres are developed with their own sense of histories.

But they're developed by fans. No individual monolithic narrative can be imposed (if it can be with any subject). The nature of pop culture is a continual form of storytelling, of opening up and re-imagining events.

This makes it perfect for open source exhibition creation, for re-adjusting the relationship with the audience—people who have a far greater breadth of knowledge about pop culture than curators endlessly moving from one exhibition subject to another.

The curator should be less of a critic, seeking objectivity and analysis, as a DJ, remixing and reformulating already extant material.

If the exhibition can never replace the event, it can develop in a new way, touching on and relating to the object of its study, allowing for change and capturing excitement and passion.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned: