Adam Matthew Digital’s resource Victorian Popular Culture ‘invit[es] users into the darkened halls, small backrooms, big tops and travelling venues’ to enable them to explore the ‘spectacular shows and bawdy burlesque, to the world of magic, spiritualist séances, optical entertainments and the first moving pictures’ which were to be found there. Victorian Popular Culture contains a wide range of source material relating to popular entertainment in America, Britain and Europe (although Britain appears to be the primary source) in the period from 1779 to 1930. The aim is to demonstrate the interconnectivity of entertainment worlds and is very well met through cross-searchability. With a mix of primary and secondary sources, for anyone with an interest in popular culture and entertainment of the Victorian period, this is a must use resource with invaluable resources and information which has been complied by experts in various relevant fields.
The link of public engagement between the varied and interested editorial board has provided an online archive which will bring together academics from different fields and with different periods of interest to enjoy a simplistic, easy to use archive which has been previously missing from the field. The archive has successfully collated resources from some of the biggest archives available, as well as including private archives with permission from current owners. These private archives would have been difficult if not impossible to consult prior to the completion of Victorian Popular Culture which only works to give the archive added value to its users.
First time users to the site may find logging in difficult, as the area is not made obvious on the homepage. However, once access is granted, the portal opens a menagerie of resources to explore. The Homepage welcomes the user with examples of resources to be discovered. Easy to navigate, there are multiple exploration options; some more detailed and complex, and some more simplified depending on how each individual user wishes to explore the site. The ‘Introduction’ section will be of particular interest to new users as here can be found all of the basic information needed to understand and use the site. Anyone struggling to use the site should consult the ‘Take a Tour’ area which provides an introduction to the mechanics of the pages. Alternatively, there is the ‘Page by Page Guide’ in the ‘Help’ area.
Split into four main sections (Spiritualism, Sensation and Magic; Music Hall, Theatre and Popular Entertainment; Circuses, Sideshows and Freaks; Moving Pictures, Optical Entertainment and the Advent of Cinema) the archive’s separation of resources allows users to quickly navigate towards the information they require. Searchable document types include but are not limited to rare books, scrapbooks, pamphlets, songbooks and ephemera including newspapers and ticket stubs.
Spiritualism, Sensation and Magic provides printed material on the world of mediums and magicians alike. Magic, séances, escapology and exploration into debunking the weird and wonderful are all contained within this area of the site including resources on the work of Harry Houdini (1874-1962). Music Hall, Theatre and Popular Entertainment includes some of the largest and most extensive information and resource availability on the site, housing playbills, advertisements, recordings and almost anything you can think of relating to Victorian theatre both legitimate and illegitimate. Circuses, Sideshows and Freaks provides one of the most fun and colourful sections of the site and regardless of whether research is required in this area, it is worth looking through the visual ephemera on offer here. The most immersive section of the website comes in the Moving Pictures section as here is the largest selection of resources available to see and hear. Here you are able to visually immerse yourself in things you have only ever heard of, including the amazing talent of silent actors such as Charlie Chaplin. Each area of the site brings something different to the arena of Victorian Culture and yet all are able to come to the same table to colour and provide visual aid to what many may only have heard of and wondered about. Something which is also useful is that each area can be purchased individually should one area be of more interest than others.
The archive goes beyond simply hosting resources relating to each topic, with secondary sources including background introductions and essays to contextualise the information found within the archive. As well as introductions and essays, the Chronology (a link to which can be found on the Homepage) opens a timeline stretching from 1800-1928 and provides a visual history of various key events including Key Publications, Cultural Contexts and People to name but a few. Each category is colour co-ordinated to allow for quick identification. Although not all encompassing, the timeline makes it possible to place resources from the archive into contemporary cultural context adding value for those researching cultural history. The Additional Features section also puts some of what you see on the site into practice with their visual gallery.
Audio tracks are accompanied by lyrics which is of great assistance in some cases due to the quality of the sound recordings. All printed material is full-text searchable and other material has been keyword indexed for simple use. More information is also available on each of the archives that resources have been drawn from should anyone require this information.
Overall, Victorian Popular Culture is an invaluable resource to any researcher or teacher with an interest in popular entertainment in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries presenting resources brought together which would otherwise be difficult to access. Although the site does not hold information on every theatre production, or every early cinema moment, to be able to physically see the Victorian theatre, circus and cinema in action is an invaluable experience. For those with an interest in Victorian Culture, or any of the individual categories contained within Victorian Popular Culture, this digital resource is useful, interesting, and invaluable with its user friendly interface and mix of resources. Adam Matthew have achieved their goal of creating an interconnected and engaging resource.
Philippa Abbott (University of Sunderland)
British Association for Victorian Studies, December 2016