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By creating around 15,000 digital objects, taken from East London theatres, the project will preserve unique endangered collections and make them accessible to an academic audience.

The East London theatre archive

The collection is now live at

The East London Theatre Archive has created an invaluable database of performing arts resources, from playbills and programmes to press cuttings and photographs. By creating around 15,000 digital objects, taken from East London theatres, the project has preserved unique endangered collections and made them accessible to an academic and ageneral audience. The outcome is a digitised collection full of rich potential for students and researchers across the country.

Watch the YouYube video

The project

East London has made a unique contribution to the development of theatre and theatre studies - it was the East End of London that first brought musical hall and variety to the world which grew into vaudeville and burlesque with their multifarious European and American incarnations. These theatrical forms later evolved into what became known as the ‘alternative comedy’ of the 1980s.

During the late 19th and early 20th century, East London had more music hall theatres than any other part of the country. Many of these buildings were bombed in the war, were cleared away for the onset of social housing, became cinemas or fell into disrepair. From the ashes of its past, from its many forgotten lost theatres, a diverse and dynamic resource remains.

This project celebrates and facilitates research into East London theatres and their history by making the precious archives of these buildings available to researchers and students with an academic interest in charting the influence and power of the area’s contribution to theatre today.

The history of theatre in the East End has been a comparatively under-researched subject area, partly due to the inaccessibility of primary research materials. Overshadowed by the focus on the West End theatre, the theatre of the East End offers rich potential for researchers. This resource addressed the lack of digital resources available in the performing arts sector.

The content

Creating around 15,000 digital objects, the resource mainly comprises images and papers, but also photographs, artefacts and media clips. It has been sourced from:

Theatre Museum : c10,000 items, including rare 19th century playbills, modern programmes, contemporary press cuttings, prints, posters and architects' plans

Theatre Royal Stratford East: includes important collections of Joan Littlewood's letters as well as material on the emergence of the black musical

Hoxton Hall: includes photographs, Victorian ephemera and architectural items from the late 1800s to the present day

Wilton's Music Hall: photos and papers from mainly modern performances

Half Moon Young People's Theatre: an archive collection of papers which tell the story of the rise of bilingual theatre within East London's transient immigrant populations

Hackney Empire: an archive that charts the theatre's history through its music hall heyday to its demise and then resurgence

The project has also created a Flickr group with images of the actual theatres.

The process

Digitisation was for preservation as well as access, and standards were carefully selected accordingly. The objects were recorded with detailed metadata, based on existing standards, but with extensions for the specific nature of the collection, and enriched with authoritative contextual essays to support the collection and provide insight for the targeted higher education and research audience.

The future

The archive has taken the form of a fully accessible digital collection and website. Access to both the metadata and the materials is open to the higher and further education communities and also to the wider public, as this collection is of significant cultural and artistic value beyond its immediate academic value. The Institute for Performing Arts Development at the University of East London will begin to build specific research projects around the legacy of East London theatres in the coming years. The Theatre Museum will provide learning packs on selected themes, to allow visitors of the site to understand and contextualise information found within primary source materials such as playbills.

(In 2009, the project has received subsequent JISC funding, for a project called Clustering & Enhancing Digital Archives for Research (CEDAR), to exploit the use of the resource in research, teaching and learning.)

The project plan

Download the project plan to find out more about the detail of the project.

The final report

Download the Final Report (pdf), produced on the project's completion

Lead site: University of East London
Project partners: Theatre Museum; Centre for e-Research, King's College London; Theatre Royal Stratford East; Hoxton Hall; Hackney Empire; Half Moon Young People’s Theatre; Wilton’s Music Hall