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A Joint Project of the University of Salford and Manchester Music City Tours
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What the general public can expect
The exhibition on pre-digital fan networks highlights the spontaneous creative activity of fans both as an expression of their fandom and as a form of their communication with one another. These fans by and large did not view the artefacts they created in a self-conscious way as "artworks" or as "artistic statements". Rather these were spontaneously improvised objects bearing the stamp of their creator's individuality. For this reason the decorated letters, the specially-made friendship books, and highly elaborate envelopes housing them, for example, can be understood as instances of popular or folk art: a form of creative expression deeply meaningful to the sender and receiver, but existing quite outside the normal atmosphere of the "art world". As such they exemplify a spontaneously-generated popular culture as described by culturalists such as Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams, among others. The act of making and sharing such artefacts simultaneously generated both the shared semiotic codes and values of the group and the cohesion of the fan community itself.

The exhibition specifically focuses attention on Walter Benjamin's concept of aura in the artefact, demonstrating that aura, usually conceived as a quality inherent in high art, obtains in the folk art artefact and even in photographs. This fact is emphasised in the fans' regular insistence, for example, that no copies be made of the photographs they took and shared with other fans. Quite independently of Benjamin, these fans recognised a special quality in the unique original (even though the original was itself a product of technology) and sought to insure its singularity by the proscription of copying. Therefore, the exhibition will demonstrate that ideas such as aura are evident and meaningful in folk or popular art.

The exhibition has three main aims.
First, we want to acknowledge and celebrate the creativity and ingenuity of fans in the pursuit of their interests. Popular music acts do not achieve lasting success by means of music industry hype, but by the continued support of their fans who form (imagined) relationships with the act they are interested in, but very real ones with other fans sharing their interest. While scholars have begun to investigate the important role of fans in the popular music enterprise, that work is not widely known or appreciated outside the academic sphere. This exhibition, whose materials have been created and donated by fans and for fans, will make this understanding far more accessible to the general public.

Second, in contrast to the widely-held belief that fandom is a passive response to mass-mediated popular music, the exhibition will demonstrate the active productivity on the part of the fans, and that fandom actually stimulates action and the creation of and participation in social networks.

Third, although not directly thematised in the exhibition, the displays are intended to spark a debate about the impact that Internet social network websites such as Facebook and Twitter have had/are having upon the creativity and productivity of popular music fans.

The exhibition is underpinned by thorough empirical research. In preparation for this unique display of fan creativity and productivity we conducted a »sociological survey among 500 Take That fans from around the globe who participated in this subculture in the 90s, the results of which will be presented in the exhibition.


In order to show the creativity of the fans, the following will be thematised in exhibits constituted entirely of field documents and artefacts, i.e. donations from the private collections of the fans:

  • International pen pal relationships between teenage Take That fans
  • Lavishly decorated letters and envelopes exchanged by fans
  • The swapping of material
  • Take That photos and the subcultural economy/market surrounding them. Fans tried to meet the band in order to take off-stage/back-stage photographs which they swapped with their pen pals for similar photos taken by the other. These unofficial and unauthorised photos of the band became highly valued commodities within the network and, the fans insisted, were not to be copied under any circumstances. This phenomenon will be illuminated in the exhibition as well as the qualities which made photos 'valuable'. The exhibition will include some of the least valuable offstage photos alongside the most valuable ones in order to dramatise this difference.
  • FBs (friendship-books, a unique subcultural invention), and their variations, so-called "slams", "crams", and "decos". Friendship books were individually constructed artefacts for disseminating information about the fans, their interests, and their addresses. These often took elaborate forms. This part of the exhibition will illuminate how contact was made among the fans.
  • The fan as detective. Gaining information about the personal lives of the band was a highly respected activity: where they lived, what hotels they were staying in, where they might be met. This part of the exhibition focuses on the ingenious ways of acquiring and making use of this kind of information. The detective work often led to successful attempts to meet the band and in some cases to what is today known as stalking. The subject of how fans managed to meet the band will be explored through videotaped interviews conducted with particularly determined hard-core fans.
  • Secular fan pilgrimages. A number of sites in and around Manchester associated with the band (where they grew up, where they shot a video, where they once ate, etc.) became meccas for the fans, to which they made special trips with fellow fans. This part of the exhibition highlights this activity.
  • Case studies of individual pen pals and/or networks of pen pals featuring "now and then" comparisons and photographs, as this has been requested by the stakeholder community in our front-end evaluation.

And, by the way, a curious detail of inside information which non-fans can expect to learn is how the fans, who as teenagers naturally had little money, as a matter of expedience found ways to collectively cheat the Post Offices of their respective countries.