A Peep Into The Great Exhibition of 1851

26 February 2016

I’ve been working on the early stages of projects at Adam Matthew for nearly two years now, but as we start putting together our digital resources up to five years before publication, there haven’t been many occasions where material I’ve originally viewed in archives has been released yet. As part of our project planning, a member of Adam Matthew staff physically looks at every single item we digitise for our resources. This involves extended periods working in archives all over the world where we assess collections for condition, make detailed notes about how they should be scanned and record as much metadata as possible. Of course, the main reason for physically viewing collections is to make sure we’re including the best quality, most relevant and unique primary source material in our online resources.  

Photograph taken in the V&A Museum archive by Hannah Davison. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Every single document you see in one of our projects has been carefully selected by us for a reason and every single image has been digitised with us thinking about the most accurate way to preserve archival integrity in digital format. An item I came across back in 2014 provided a challenge in terms of how to digitise it; Spooner’s Perspective View of the Great Exhibition is a folding concertina peepshow. It is made of ten pieces of card, each with a different layer of a scene from inside Crystal Palace, where the 1851 Great Exhibition was held (widely regarded as the most influential single event in the history of design and industry). Folded out and viewed through the peephole, these pieces make up a three-dimensional perspective of a long architectural gallery. There obviously wouldn’t be much value in simply scanning this item in folded form so we had it photographed with a close up taken through the peephole and a wider view so the user can see how the perspective is created.

Images from World's Fairs: A Global History of Expositions © Victoria and Albert Museum. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

This kind of folding cardboard peepshow evolved in the Victorian era from larger, heavy wooden versions which travelling showmen carted around on their backs and charged viewers per peep. Spooner’s souvenir created for the Great Exhibition is a much more portable manifestation, presumably being mass-produced and affordable for the average exhibition visitor. They would be able to take it home and relive their experience of the fair, or like us, get a taster of what it might have been like if they weren’t able to go.

An example of a travelling wooden peepshow from Victorian Popular Culture. Image © Bill Douglas Cinema Museum. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Our forthcoming World’s Fairs: A History of Global Exhibitions is rich with this kind of ephemera collected by fair-goers, along with personal accounts of their experiences. It is this unique primary source material that makes our resources so exceptional and the reason we were able to include it in this case is because we had access to historical collections put together by the fair organisers themselves. The peepshow is part of the Great Exhibition Collection in the National Art Library of the V&A Museum, largely comprising personal papers of Sir Henry Cole (1808-1882) and Charles Wentworth Dilke (1810-1869). After organising the Great Exhibition along with Prince Albert, Sir Henry Cole went on to found what is now the V&A Museum, with the first accessions being exhibits from the Great Exhibition. Cole’s own diaries from the time are also included in our resource, it really doesn’t get any more first-hand than this! Eighteen months ago I was sitting in the V&A Library in London with this item in my hand and now it will be available to students and researchers across the globe, we hope you will find it informative and expertly-digitised!

The reading room at the National Art Library, V&A Museum. Public domain photo by Andreas Praefcke.

World’s Fairs: a Global History of Expositions will be released in March 2016 with full access restricted to authenticated academic institutions who have purchased licence. For price enquires and information about trial access please email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


About the Author

Hannah Davison

I've been part of the Editorial Development team at Adam Matthew since April 2014. I have enjoyed travelling to archives and conferences in the US and Europe to research new project ideas. My background is in art history, anthropology and museums.

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