Analysis: an exhibition about Cork's Sir Henry's was an opportunity to show its historical, geographical, cultural and social importance

By Eileen Hogan and Martin O'Connor, UCC and Stephen Grainger

In 2014, UCC presented the Sir Henrys@UCC Library research exhibition, which documented the history and socio-cultural significance of a famous Cork live music venue called Sir Henrys. The exhibition presented the story of the venue from the perspectives of the people who worked there, the bands and DJs who played there, and the people who attended performances and club nights over its 26 year existence.

The exhibition was a huge success, as measured by the thousands of visitors to the library and written reactions to the exhibition in the visitor book. Sir Henrys@UCC Library also featured widely in local and national media. 

What was Sir Henrys?

Sir Henrys opened as a piano bar on October 4th, 1977 and developed over the years to become an important live music venue for generations of rock bands and their fans. Initially it hosted local bands and Irish bands, but by the late 1980s it was hosting some of the biggest international bands on the indie-rock scene.

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Keith O'Shea's Sir Henry's 120bpm film on the Cork venue

Towards the end of the 1980s the explosive popularity of electronic dance music and acid house internationally prompted the establishment of "rave" nights and soon Sir Henrys gained fame (or notoriety, depending on one’s perspective!) as a destination dance venue for Irish clubbers. The best known night was a club called Sweat, which was voted the best dance club in Europe by MTV at one stage – something which Henry's dance clubbers never forgot. After many successful decades of business, and several changes in management and ownership in the late 1990s and 2000s, Sir Henrys finally closed its doors in 2003.

Putting the exhibition together

Sir Henrys@UCC Library was both a virtual and a physical exhibition. The items featured in the exhibition were crowdsourced and involved the community in the research process. We invited Sir Henrys' fans to loan physical artefacts to the library for the duration of the exhibition and to contribute stories about these artefacts and memories relating to the venue that we showcased on through various social media channels, including Twitter, a blog and Facebook.

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From RTE 2fm, Dan Hegarty's documentary on the Cork Rock showcase held annually at Sir Henry's from 1988 to 1995

The physical exhibition space was a small, designated area in the foyer of UCC Library. This housed 12 storyboards, a detailed timeline of the club’s existence, cabinets packed tight with eclectic material artefacts, including a guitar, clothing, photographs, setlists, cassettes, vinyl records, flyers, zines, tickets, underwear, letters, legal documents and licences relevant to the establishment of the club.

The impact of the exhibition

Through crowdsourcing, we learned that public engagement in the curation process is interesting, rewarding and enables a more democratic approach to heritage-making. However, community engagement needs careful management, since people are deeply emotionally invested in the objects and memories of their youth, and need to fully trust the curators with whom they are sharing their personal histories and material artefacts.

Nirvana supporting Sonic Youth at Sir Henry's in August 1991. Photo: Eamonn Cunningham

This depth of emotional attachment is what motivated us as curators. Each of us had been Henry's "heads" and we too had strong affective connections to the space, so the opportunity to connect with fellow enthusiasts and to be involved in telling the story of the venue was exciting. For the library, the exhibition was an opportunity to do something different, to engage with the wider community, to promote interdisciplinary research, and to build professional relationships between library and academic staff and with the wider community.

From a cultural heritage perspective, the exhibition allowed us to tell a more multidimensional story of the venue than already existed in most people's minds. Although the club was home to many diverse kinds of music over the years, people often held a very narrow vision of the club that was limited by their own particular memories and experiences. The exhibition facilitated the bringing together of these multiple histories and enabled the presentation of a more comprehensive representation of the venue's musical, cultural and social significance.

Poster for Sir Henry's DJ Weekend 1994

The exhibition was also an opportunity to bring something that is often perceived as a "non-academic" interest into an academic setting. Academics studying popular music (and popular culture more broadly) often encounter snobbery about the value and status of their research by comparison with more "serious" disciplines. The academic dimension to the project allowed us to confront, and even challenge, this negative bias towards the value of popular music studies and its perceived place within academia.

For the curators, we were further convinced through the research experience that popular music matters – historically, geographically, culturally, and socially.  For the researchers, collaborators, audiences, and fans, the exhibition left us in no doubt that Sir Henrys matters.

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From RTÉ News, a report on the opening of the Sir Henry's exhibition at UCC

"Having UCC Library so enthusiastically back [the Sir Henrys exhibition] helped legitimise all the time wasting I had been doing before during and after college", says Stevie Grainger. "The superb exhibition in the summer 2014 was a wonderful hat tip to all of us wasters who became immersed in this youth culture along the way".

You can read a longer account about the Sir Henrys@UCC Library exhibition in An Leabharlann: The Irish Library.

Dr Eileen Hogan is a lecturer in social policy in the School of Applied Social Studies and a research associate with the Institute for Social Science in the 21st Century at UCC. She is an Irish Research Council awardee. Librarian Martin O'Connor is an Administrative Assistant at UCCStephen Grainger/"Stevie G" is a club DJ and radio presenter on Red FM.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ