"Hanging Out: Youth culture then and now" is tucked away in the Sackler Centre at the Victoria and Albert Museum. It could be easy to breeze past the first room of the exhibition, seeking a bigger, louder indication of a collection, but there is more here than meets the eye. The opening display, situated in a ‘space-between’ – after the entrance and before the help desk – is just a sample of the upstairs exhibition and the programme as a whole. The upper part of the exhibition is also in an inconspicuous space, and you may need to ask an attendant to point you in the right direction, but give the exhibition time, as it is a treasure worth seeking. Bursting with energy and indomitable force, the collection looks back over youth culture, fashion, music and politics of 1950s and 1960s London. Rather than simply looking through the rose tinted glasses of nostalgia, it reminds us of the obstacles and conflicts of the past, and captures the shifting revolutionary spirit of each era.
The exhibition is part of a wider educational programme focusing on the cultural diversity of the 1950s and 60s, and relates social dynamics of past eras to issues young people face today. The project includes workshops, events and discussion groups, and the documentation of these events is on display at the V&A. Within the collection there are diverse visual projects, from fashion and graphics to interviews and films, not to mention the photographic archival material on display. Involving volunteers from schools, colleges and unemployment centers, "Hanging Out" provides a constructive forum in which current social and political issues can be approached creatively.
Part of the exhibition features vintage protest posters, and one in particular sitcks out: a Native American woman featuring the words "I’d rather be red than dead," subverting the anti-communist slogan "I’d rather be dead than red" and highlighting the struggle for civil liberties in the U.S. at that time. Opposite the collection of posters, a series of 3-5 minute short films are screened, including Vini Curtis’ short documentary: "My first protest". This film juxtaposes student militancy in the 1960s with protests from the last two years. It is interesting to compare these demonstrations of free-speech, and the film feels somehow motivational. There is sometimes a sense of hopelessness and cynicism about the act of protest, especially following the general response to recent movements such as Occupy London. The video reminds us of the positive impact protests have had in the past, and the way in which some of the freedoms we now take for granted were once fought for by teenagers in London.
Other issues such as feminism and the development of sexual freedom are warmly recalled in films such as "My mum the bunny girl" about a mother remembering her time as a Playboy Bunny at age 22. Her narrative causes us to reflect on the way in which sexual politics have changed over the last few decades. Her experience is framed in an innocent and theatrical light, glamorous rather than exploitative. Whilst this is not necessarily a feminist statement about Playboy, there is a sense that the terms on which we understand feminism and sexuality have shifted somehow, that it is now more complex, and that there is greater awareness of the far reaching impact of individuals’ choices.
A sense of responsibility underpins the exhibition. Whilst it often highlights unique experiences and personal tales, there is an inclusive spirit to the collection. We are reminded of the power each of us have, not only to alter cultural landscapes, but in our role within or against political agendas. It is a heartfelt comment on the importance of community, and the mutual human need for discourse and compassion as part of the wider ideals of culture and politics.