What we think

Cultural Nostalgia and how we can learn from it…

March 2017

Ferdie examines what the rise of nostalgia in the UK means, and the lessons the cultural sector could learn from it...


Talking about cultural nostalgia is old hat*. Myriad commentators have pointed out the post-millennial penchant for bake-offs, classic film franchise reboots, the trendification of taxidermy, vinyl record fetishisation and Downton Abbey.

It’s telling that the chief characteristic of the meaningless label of our day, ‘Hipster’, is a yearning for the authentic, the analogue and the retrograde. But has this undeniably real trend permeated even the nervously guarded stockades of the cultural sector? Well, let’s see.

*probably a trilby, or a boater

Indulging the inner child

Childhood was a simpler time. It’s not unnatural to yearn for a age when homework, playground crushes and hoarding Haribo were the most pressing concerns – as opposed to Trump, mortgage repayments and international terrorism. Consequently, we crave what we once did, and it’s not just the upsetting rise of ‘the onesie’ – or the café on Brick Lane that trades exclusively in sugary cereal – that are there to indulge that craving.

Just look at the Natural History Museum’s 'Dino Snores' sleepover for adults. Asides from its utterly brilliant name (pats on the back for whoever came up with that), it’s quite telling as to where we’ve reached as a civilisation that there is a strong market for sleeping under a plaster cast of a diplodocus. Nostalgia is a primal urge. One that manifests itself in the childish.

Conservativism and nostalgia

On the subject of ‘Dippy’ (as the cast is obnoxiously known), it’s interesting look back at the social furore that greeted NHM’s announcement in 2015 that it was to replace the diplodocus with a blue whale skeleton.

Dippy vs. Flippy became for a short time (in what must have been a slow news month) the story to follow. Adults were incensed that tomorrow’s children wouldn’t be able to experience the awe they themselves felt on first seeing their beloved Dippy. And a ‘progressive’ pro-Flippy camp emerged arguing the not-unreasonable position that a massive whale skeleton is fundamentally more impressive than a plaster cast of a fossil held in Pittsburgh.

The backlash provoked by a simple curatorial decision is a demonstration of reactionary behaviour in its purest form – a reactionary tendency manifesting itself more and more in cultural conservatism. The lesson: cultural institutions mess with people’s childhood memories at their own peril.

The business of backwards

But there can be no surprise that this is a sector fully embracing that longing for the past. After all, museums are traditionally the past’s guardians. However, it isn’t just museums looking backwards: just look at Wilton’s Music Hall in Shadwell. Its bread and butter is a sustained programme of swing, vaudeville and gramophone-based antics. As a wedding venue, Wilton's is understandably extremely popular. But what’s odd about the old Victorian music hall is that one isn’t buying into a nostalgia for any experience truly lived by the participants. This is a Post-Modern nostalgia for the subcultural re-appropriation generation. This is culture as an immersive game.

The gamification of everything

Perhaps it was the advent of the internet that started it, but now everything feels like a game. Food, travel, dating – and now art. Take the new Smartify app: it helps to decipher paintings and artworks in a museum context – but it also makes a game of the art (while in the meantime Carsten Höller and his ilk makes playgrounds of Tate Modern and the Hayward Gallery).

Consider too the ‘lates’ movement. Museums are undeniably opening-up their collections to new audiences and in thrilling new ways. But ‘lates’ are also appealing because they afford us an opportunity to play. Adults love to play as much as children – indeed, perhaps more – because they have less of an opportunity to do so. Lates give people a chance to dress-up and mess-around, see known things with new eyes and lose their serious face. The urge for this kind of behaviour is increasingly finding its vent in events such as these, and the likes of Secret Cinema.

But what – you might well ask – is behind this kind of headfirst diving into the past?

Buzzfeed: just another cultural organisation?

The known is simply more compelling than the unknown. Take Buzzfeed’s archetypical ‘listicle’ as evidence. With titles like, ‘14 things you’ll only know if you grew up in the 90s’, or ‘16 chocolate bars that were EVERYTHING’, Buzzfeed found a click-ready market of people desperate to have their past lives affirmed and brought in line with the norm.

But Buzzfeed is merely tapping into that very same primal human need. Arguably the very notion of the populist ‘blockbuster’ is the listicle’s cultural equivalent. We visit Turner at Tate, Harry Potter Studios, Les Misérables, or Bowie at the V&A not to see something new, but to have our nostalgia affirmed en masse.

And what's wrong with that?

Nothing. If people want to see more of what they know – or are desperate to sleep among the fossils – and it gets them through the doors of your museum and engaged, then it’s something that should be wholeheartedly embraced. Just so long as the things they know (Hockney, Kylie, Jean Valjean) are balanced by some of the things they don’t.

There’s no denying that museums are for and of the past – as long as they do not live in the past. 

Lessons to learn

The recognition of nostalgia as a powerful driving force for the human psyche gives rise to a few 'givens' that the cultural sector can learn from. Specifically:

  • Turbulent times call for comforting measures
  • Nostalgia is already a primal urge, not some articifially marketed 'product'
  • Cultural institutions mess with people’s childhood at their peril
  • Culture is increasingly analogous with gaming
  • People liked to have their nostalgia affirmed


But above all museums must remember not just to provide for the adults seeking the thrill of childhood, but create stimulating experiences that will inspire nostalgia in future generations.