British cultural nostalgia and history lessons: A visit to the British Culture Archive

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The British Culture Archive (BCA) is an online resource that takes “a look back at everyday life growing up in our towns and communities”, packed with images of post-industrial Britain. Music, fashion and politics are present here, with archived content from the post-war era to the modern-day. 

The BCA features work from a prolific generation of documentary photographers who came of age capturing post-war British scenes, often in working-class communities. Peter Mitchell, whose snapshots of Leeds are currently displayed on large advertisement boards on Hyde Park Corner and the seminal works of the late Chris Killip, who sadly passed away this week – are two photographers featured. 

A recent post on their blog showcases the work of Tony Davis and his images of 1990s Midland’s nightlife, describing “how all-nighters at Wigan Casino stood him in good stead when he documented the rave scene”. 

It is this musical trajectory, from before northern-soul and Wigan Casino, electro all-dayer events, dub sound system clashes – to bleep, to jungle, to today; that the BCA provides a visual context for. It helps us trace the roots, origins and legacy of these cultural developments. To read more about this distinctive time in British musical history, Join the Future by Matt Anniss is a book that attempts to demythologise and biograph pioneers in these subcultures, with a focus on working-class northern communities. It is worth a read.

There is a certain nostalgia for music subculture that archival images provided by the BCA can incubate. It is necessary to assess, when we all miss clubbing, to what extent do we whitewash or romanticise these histories when revelling in such snapshots. In the information age, when digital images translate our reality into a serious of 1s and 0s, film photographs seize on particular moments and seem to bring them almost tangibly into the present. 

Image Credit: British Culture Archive, Tony Davis

Simon Reynolds, a connoisseur in analysing music nostalgia, acknowledges “our ever-increasing capacity to store, organise, instantly access, and share vast amounts of cultural data”, that “the sheer mass of past accumulating behind the music” has begun “to exert a kind of gravitational pull”. The BCA’s Instagram followers currently total at 127k and counting. Rising Twitter account ‘UK Rave YouTube Comments’, recently featured in Dazed for curating occasionally poignant, often hilarious, and nostalgic comments left under old rave footage. The account has gained 21.1k followers since May this year. 

Nostalgia is rife, but the BCA do it sensitively and effectively. They don’t provide us with an aestheticised version of the past, dislocated from all context. The archive makes it very clear that their images are ‘ranging from the 1960’s mod scene, northern soul and punk – through to Thatcher’s Britain, social housing and acid house.’ Their political and sociological voice is strong, they provide valuable written histories alongside their photographs. Their class-conscious approach is absolutely necessary, given that some subject matter shows austere living conditions as a consequence of Thatcherism. 

A more recent project of the BCA, The People’s Archive, highlights their desire to give their growing platform to previously unseen work and allow its engagement with a wider audience. Set up in 2016, it preserves crowdsourced images of everyday life, situating domestic moments and family snapshots alongside the work of documentarian legends. This intent to preserve, to document, to freely share, ensures that the archive functions as a vitally accessible historical resource – on a website that is simple to navigate. 

Image Credit: British Culture Archive, The People’s Archive

The focus on expansion and inclusion ensures that the archive can produce nuanced visual historiography and do justice to the steeped UK history of culture and music genre from the 20th century to now, indebted to post-war immigration and working-class communities. New insights and faces that would’ve been lost in a photo album or elsewhere, reach your social media feed daily.

In 2021 they are set to open a permanent, accessible gallery exhibition space in the North West, and a home for The People’s Archive. You can find out more, and support their Crowdfunder here: 

Image Credit: The British Culture Archive