In 2016, the exhibition Punk 1976-78 opened at the British Library, celebrating the fortieth anniversary of punk in the city of London.1 The exhibition mirrored typical museum settings, with items of punk memorabilia displayed in vitrines. Alongside punk’s history, its advancing age and institutionalization were on display as well.
In the midst of the flyers and ticket stubs was a rare first pressing of the Sex Pistols’ debut album Never Mind the Bollocks…Here’s the Sex Pistols, released in 1977. The inclusion of the LP in the exhibition highlights LPs’ role as museum and heritage objects. In the context of the British Library exhibition, the LP was not just a sound medium or a collector’s item; it was a piece from the archives that was seen more than heard and that stood as a symbol for punk history. The open exhibition space featured no background music, but a selection of musical examples could be listened to on headphones that were located near the vitrines. By putting the sound storage medium behind glass and making the music externally accessible to visitors, the curators distanced the LP’s sonic function from its visual artwork component. It is therefore interesting to take a closer look at the changing cultural status of LPs from media of sound storage to items of popular music heritage, and at the special role of punk LPs in museums.
Like many other recent music exhibitions, the events organized around London’s punk anniversary frequently worked with and displayed LPs. Speaking to the British Library Press Office, curator Andy Linehan stated that “punk had a huge impact on many aspects of British culture and continues to do so today, so we’re excited to dedicate an exhibition to it – featuring music, film, magazines and fanzines, record sleeves and more.”2 His statement underlines the distinction between music and related artworks and packaging. The exhibition context and style made it clear that the displayed LPs were chosen not only for their musical content and rarity, but also for their visual and textual components—artworks, titles, color schemes, photographic features—which served to illustrate punk aesthetics, themes, and ideologies. The items’ placement in the exhibition, in vitrines and amid other artefacts such as original clothing and instruments, emphasized their monetary worth and cultural significance.
Exhibitions dealing with musical subjects sometimes struggle to display sounds alongside visual artefacts or to do so in a consistent manner.3 This can be due to any number of reasons, ranging from spatial restrictions to technical and auditory limitations. The exhibition design of Punk 1976-78 was dominated by information boards, large picture walls, and rows of vitrines featuring fanzines, flyers, concert tickets, records, and other memorabilia—most of them in bright neon colors that are often associated with punk. Black headphone stations offered musical input, but these blended more into the background and were sometimes difficult to use during peak visiting hours. In 2016, several other punk exhibitions took place in London that did not include any music at all.4 While punk admittedly includes visual aspects, to present the music detached from the physical object can distort presentations of punk history—and the artefactual status assigned to LPs is one of the starkest ways this distortion is visible. Exhibitions dealing with popular music history clearly need to find ways to include sounds. On the other hand, as an item of popular music heritage, the LP presents visitors with an immediate impression of punk because it includes both the visuals and the words of punk, while offering insights into the genre’s commercial aspects.
Looking at Never Mind the Bollocks…Here’s the Sex Pistols in the context of Punk 1976-78 made it possible to observe the cultural importance and historical status of punk in a changing society. The exhibition contrasted the Sex Pistols’ history—marked by controversies, public outrage, show cancellations, and record store boycotts—with the entry of this once-banned LP into traditional institutions and museums. The record sleeve that had been dubbed obscene is nowadays put behind glass because of its high value and status as a heritage object.
The British Library’s punk exhibition met with some criticism, aimed largely at the event’s commercial aspects, such as selling T-shirts and cushions emblazoned with newspaper headlines about the Sex Pistols’ controversies. Yet the press and social media reactions were predominantly positive. Reviews fostered a sense of nostalgia and indicated the importance of materiality and rare collector’s items in popular music exhibitions. But they also raised questions about the compatibility of the original punk ethos and the growing social acceptance of the genre, showing that punk occupies a difficult position in exhibitions due to its ideological anti-authoritarian stance. While most punk music today is readily available online, it is heritage objects, such as the rare Sex Pistols LP, that serve to emphasize the aging and historic status of the genre and to enforce the connection of listeners to the past to make it more tangible. At the same time, the position and meaning of LPs in museums and as part of popular music heritage is shaped by several ambiguities: the music and the object; the product and the creative work; scandal and success; public controversies and the growing acceptance of punk; personal meanings, memories, and the increasing institutional heritagization of the genre. Curators thus face the double challenge of presenting the LP as both an item of great cultural and historic value as well as one of individual worth to visitors, especially with regards to its main feature—the music.
The research for this paper was funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) – EH 508/2-1. Funding for the London-based research was provided by the University of Hamburg.
British Library Press Office, “Punk 1976-78 at the British Library: a new 40th anniversary exhibition exploring the formative years of this musical phenomenon”.
Sarah Baker, Lauren Istvandity and Raphael Nowak, Curating Pop. Exhibiting Popular Music in the Museum, Ebook, pos. 2869 ff.
This was for instance the case during my research visits to the exhibitions “Small Wonder Records” in the Leytonstone Library and “40 Years of Punk” by photographer Adrian Boot in the Proud Camden gallery.