From squat synthesizers to a gyrating cube, a new exhibition dedicated to dance music culture poignantly brings the spirit of communal celebration to a museum

One of the first items you see upon entering the Design Museum’s ambitious new history of electronic music is a vast Andreas Gursky photograph of ravers in Dusseldorf in 1995. Electronic debuted at the Philharmonie de Paris last year and this expanded, anglicised version was meant to open in April, but subsequent events have rendered the curators’ efforts to represent electronic music’s fans as well as its practitioners unexpectedly poignant. A scenario that was commonplace for 30 years is suddenly unattainable: a sweaty paradise lost. Social distancing hasn’t just changed the layout of the exhibition but its emotional resonance. It’s just a shame that there’s no mention of masked rave duo Altern-8 now that every museum-goer resembles them.

Contrary to its subtitle From Kraftwerk to the Chemical Brothers, Electronic’s timeline begins in 1901 with the first ever synthesizer, the Telharmonium, and whizzes through decades of innovation, from maverick boffins fussing over wires and dials to the pop breakthroughs of Brian Eno, Giorgio Moroder and Jean-Michel Jarre, who has curated his ideal studio set-up inside a glass case. Yet all of this is really just a preamble to the invention of house music in 1980s Chicago, the point at which electronic music became synonymous with club culture. The entire exhibition pulses to the beat of themed mixes by French DJ Laurent Garnier, giving it a noisy, bustling energy. Even Kraftwerk are represented here by a 3D video of their 2017 tour, which shows the 1970s pioneers themselves influenced by the technology and stagecraft of their dancefloor disciples.

Electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk are celebrated in a 3D video of their 2017 tour.

Electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk are celebrated in a 3D video of their 2017 tour. Photograph: Guy Bell/Rex/Shutterstock

What does electronic music look like? Devices, of course, tracking the long journey from the lab to the club. A 1930s Croix Sonore, glowing like the sceptre of an intergalactic priest; a stately Ondes Martenot; a grubby Roland TB-303; a tripedal synthesiser, custom-made for Detroit DJ Jeff Mills by Yuri Suzuki, which resembles a Wellsian war machine. Then there is the imagery evoked by these strange new sounds, from the sci-fi psychedelia of the 1960s to the stark typography and geometry of 1990s techno artwork. The abstract data streams of Weirdcore’s visuals for Aphex Twin’s live shows contrast with the overflowing shelves of vinyl records in photographer Christopher Woodcock’s Bedroom Rockers series. Galleries of club fliers chart club culture’s evolution from community-hall amateurism to billion-pound industry. There are high-profile contributions from visual artists Jeremy Deller and Christian Marclay, fashion designer Raf Simons, film-maker Chris Cunningham, graphic designers Peter Saville and Designers Republic, and architects 1024, whose dancing metal cube clanks alarmingly to life like a junkyard robot.

CORE light installation by 1024 architecture
Permission to dance … CORE light installation by architects 1024. Photograph: Guy Bell/Rex/Shutterstock

There’s a possible version of this history that focuses on the faceless, borderless qualities of electronic music, but this exhibition prefers the communal and corporeal. Spaces are themed around cities – Chicago, Detroit, New York, Berlin – and the national phenomenon of Britain’s Second Summer of Love, thus illuminating different nightlife rituals. You’re drawn to bodies and faces: a video of Detroit street dancers, a collage of clubbers preparing for the weekend in Mark Farrow’s playful advertising campaign for the 90s superclub Cream, Parisian dancers frozen in awe in Jean-Christian Meyer’s grainy black-and-white portraits. The section called Utopian Dreams and Ideals presents clubs such as Berlin’s Berghain as safe spaces for LGBTQ people, while a wall chart of Britain’s unlicensed raves recounts another kind of liberation through dance music alongside government efforts to constrain it. Electronic music is often associated with robots, aliens and, less flatteringly, drug-frazzled zombies, but it has allowed many marginalised people to be more fully human. Such are the new possibilities for self-expression and communal celebration that sprang from those squat silver boxes.

Smith & Lyall’s Design Museum exhibit for the Chemical Brothers’ track Got to Keep On

Some aficionados of electronic music might quarrel with the choice to elevate DJs and dancers over inventors and therefore to concertina the pre-1980s narrative – trailblazers such as Wendy Carlos and Daphne Oram are gone in a blink – but that decision is what makes Electronic so warm, humane and surprisingly moving. The exhibition culminates in an installation by Adam Smith and Marcus Lyall, which reconfigures their stage visuals for the Chemical Brothers’ Got to Keep On in a small room full of noise, smoke and lights. It feels like electronic music’s proof of concept, pulling together music, film, fashion and modern dance into one dizzying sensory experience. Even more than 1024’s room of serried rods that light up in response to Garnier’s music, it offers a pungent taste of what is otherwise only depicted.

Illegal raves have been springing up around Britain in recent weeks, but it is strange to think that the closest one can get to a legal approximation of the dancefloor, for now, is a few precious minutes in a museum. Even with social distancing, the curators have ensured that visitors have permission to dance. If you take the opportunity, make sure to watch your fellow revellers’ faces.

… as you join us today from Thailand, we have a small favour to ask. Through these turbulent and challenging times, millions rely on the Guardian for independent journalism that stands for truth and integrity. Readers chose to support us financially more than 1.5 million times in 2020, joining existing supporters in 180 countries.

With your help, we will continue to provide high-impact reporting that can counter misinformation and offer an authoritative, trustworthy source of news for everyone. With no shareholders or billionaire owner, we set our own agenda and provide truth-seeking journalism that’s free from commercial and political influence. When it’s never mattered more, we can investigate and challenge without fear or favour.

Unlike many others, we have maintained our choice: to keep Guardian journalism open for all readers, regardless of where they live or what they can afford to pay. We do this because we believe in information equality, where everyone deserves to read accurate news and thoughtful analysis. Greater numbers of people are staying well-informed on world events, and being inspired to take meaningful action.

We aim to offer readers a comprehensive, international perspective on critical events shaping our world – from the Black Lives Matter movement, to the new American administration, Brexit, and the world’s slow emergence from a global pandemic. We are committed to upholding our reputation for urgent, powerful reporting on the climate emergency, and made the decision to reject advertising from fossil fuel companies, divest from the oil and gas industries, and set a course to achieve net zero emissions by 2030.

If there were ever a time to join us, it is now. You can power Guardian journalism and help sustain our future. Support the Guardian from as little as $1 – it only takes a minute. If you can, please consider supporting us with a regular amount each month. Thank you.