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Art Review: Punk 1976-78 @ The British Library


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If I have learnt one thing from visiting the ‘Punk 1976-78’ exhibition at the British Library, it is to never pretend to be someone I am not.

Set in its traditional ways, the British Library is good at what it does. It is an amazing resource to access any book you could ever need, being the ideal place to find obscure and hard-to-find texts.

Anarchy, on the other hand, is not one of the library’s strengths. The juxtaposition of punk and the library was probably deliberate, but I could not help but wonder if the institution had missed the point of the rebellious movement.

For an exhibition about breaking the rules, its rules were surprisingly strict. At every possible entrance were prominent signs informing viewers that there is no food, no drink, and no photography permitted in the exhibition. The rules may be standard and not specifically for ‘Punk 1976-78’, but it is difficult to take an exhibition about anarchy seriously when it is deemed rebellious to take a photograph.

In ‘Punk 1976-78’ there is a video playing of the Sex Pistol’s infamous 1976 interview on the Today programme in which the band members repeatedly swore, much to the evident disapproval of the presenter Bill Grundy. The British Library reminded me of an unimpressed Bill Grundy who had tried to entertain the idea of punk, but did not share the anarchic sentiment.

Whilst I did not overall enjoy the exhibition, there were some promising aspects of it. Dotted around the glass cabinets of iconic punk clothes and objects are headphones, some blaring out music, and others playing audio recordings of interviews. With headphones on, it is easy to become absorbed in the little world of punk that the British Library tried to create. Although, the illusion is temporary, shattering as quickly as it is created as soon as the headphones are taken off.

The exhibition could have been successful had the library shown some flexibility of its rules, allowing viewers to embrace their inner anarchist and drink a bottle of water or eat a snack whilst walking around the exhibition. However, with regular reminders of the rules, it was not successful.

With ‘Punk 1976-78’, the British Library tried to break away from its conservative image. Instead, the theme jarred with the location and the exhibition failed to live up to expectations.

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