It’s about time. Popular culture may have fragmented, broken up into TikTok-sized soundbites and time-shifted downstream from communal viewing, but it’s still at the heart of everyday living. Likewise, Manchester might have been turned to glass, its character coated by the dispiriting homogeneity of a modern skyline, but it’s still at the heart of popular culture.
The city, then, is the natural home for an undertaking that’s both fashionably late and perfectly obvious: a permanent collection of the music and television that, more than the anachronistic pageant of monarchy, has shaped the world’s perceptions of an island nation otherwise trading on more insular myths. If not dead, The Queen is moribund, and it’s The Smiths and New Order, the Pet Shop Boys and Charli XCX, who paint a less vulgar, more inclusive picture of Britishness, one that captures both heart and soul, from Lake Geneva to the Finland Station and all compass points beyond.
Importantly, it does so away from the distorting influence of London’s gravitational field, the capital being a part that’s all too apt to mistake itself for the whole, a mirror reflecting only itself in a way that’s distinctly provincial.
Launched unintentionally and entirely inevitably on the anniversary of Ian Curtis’s death, the British Pop Archive unashamedly recognises the lasting potency of pop’s deceptive ephemerality, conserving Curtis’s lyrics with knowing equivalence alongside a Gutenberg Bible and, in the opening exhibition Collection, placing his notebooks alongside a magazine edited by Clitheroe-born multi-hyphenate, Jeff Nuttall, which included contributions by William Burroughs, who – in turn – would come to influence Curtis.
Starting somewhere, Collection starts with Greater Manchester, not because there isn’t anything of interest to be said about Glasgow or Derry, Coventry or Sheffield, but because there’s a wealth of tales to be told about the city to which Enriqueta Rylands gifted this darkly beautiful neo-gothic library, its stillness and stained glass an austere rebuke to the plain surfaces that reach above the further reaches of Deansgate.
It’s the ability of other voices to call forth the future in the way that Nuttall corresponding with Burroughs led to Curtis brow-beating Granada Television’s Tony Wilson into featuring Joy Division on So It Goes (and so becoming Factory’s Tony Wilson and so on and so on) which overcomes the necessary virtue of the display cases, if not breaking their glass, then at least preventing them first mummifying then nullifying the exhibits, reducing them in the process to museum pieces.
The importance of what’s been put on show lies less in the fetishisation of nostalgia, a harking back to an old house to whose retreat brings only the diminishing returns of an Oasis, but the way the artefacts testify to pop’s potential to imagine new shapes, to rip things up, and, from the fragments, divine the future.
If there’s one thing certain about the next Factory, it’s that it will look nothing like the old Factory. The Haçienda is always being built, because it’s always being closed down, and the best of pop has the contrarian spirit of the city of journalist Morley and genius Marr, of Coronation Street’s Warren and the ever-shifting Wilson. It’s such singularity that speaks to the globe, an idiosyncrasy that flies in the face of over-the-counter culture, and lays the foundation of an archive that, like the transmitter on Winter Hill, sends out its signals far beyond Deansgate.
If the library in which it’s housed is Enriqueta Ryland’s gift to Manchester, the British Pop Archive is Manchester’s gift to the world.
This is the way, step inside.
The British Pop Archive is at John Rylands Library, Manchester until January 15, 2023. For more information, click here.