Punk 1976-78, a national touring exhibition collaboration between the British Library, Liverpool John Moores University and Liverpool Central Library

The first talk of the day was by Professor Colin Fallows from John Moores University and Polly Mills, Touring Exhibitions Co-ordinator at the British Library on their collaborative Punk exhibition at Liverpool Central Library, November 2018 – January 2019.

This was the third iteration of the Punk exhibition since it opened at the British Library in London in 2016 and toured to Sunderland’s Museum and Winter Gardens in 2017. Each venue re-interpreted the exhibition differently to embed the topic within their local punk culture. 

Over the past 20 years the John Moores University has established a large punk collection and world-class archive of counter culture. Professor Moores is an expert on the subject having curated punk exhibitions in nine different countries over the past 12 years. The exhibition was the result of a long-standing relationship with the British Library who had themselves been actively collecting punk material for a while. The content of the exhibition was a mixture of loans from both institutions alongside some private collections.

The setting of a library – a quiet space for study or contemplation – appears an unusual choice for an exhibition on punk – the anarchic, loud and demonstrative music genre. The curators played on this unusual juxtaposition by displaying large photos in the reading room areas of Liverpool Central Library.

The exhibition covered 1976 – 1978 and focused around five main themes: Before the Storm; Be responsible, demand the impossible; Punk goes overground; Punk rock explosion and; Now form a band. Objects and artefacts were distributed across several spaces in the library including parts of the original historic buildings. Special permission was granted to remove Audubon’s ‘Birds of America’ from the Oak Room and display singles covers and a leather jacket in its place. The beautiful Hornby library was also taken over by the exhibition where material was carefully placed, not scattered, and individually presented in reference to the Edwardian setting. 

Polly Mills spoke about the aims of the British Library’s touring programme, the library network which sparked the collaboration with Liverpool Central Library, and the challenges of staging an exhibition in this environment, such as security not meeting GIS standards, working with AV material and the tight budget meaning some copyright costs were prohibitive.

The benefits clearly outweighed any challenges though; a main one being the opportunity to reach a non-museum audience. Having visited Liverpool Central Library, I have seen first-hand what a well-used and loved resource it is. On a sunny Saturday afternoon, it was filled with people of all ages studying for exams, accessing the internet, reading newspapers, or simply having a cup of tea at the café. Despite experiencing threats to their survival in recent years, libraries still represent the heart of communities.

A legacy of the exhibition is a small permanent display in the main reading room on Eric’s, the Liverpool nightclub which hosted a Sex Pistols gig in 1976, which showcases ephemera – posters, flyers, contracts and tickets – reminding locals and visitors of Liverpool’s musical and cultural heritage beyond the Beatles!

Written by Hannah Kauffman, Deputy Registrar, V&A