Name: Shahmima Akhtar
Title of PhD thesis: ‘A public display of its own capabilities and resources’: A Cultural History of Irish Identity on Display, 1851-2015
Supervisors: Sadiah Qureshi, Mo Moulton, Nathan Cardon
Tell us a bit about how you came to do a PhD.
I came by the decision to do a history undergraduate on the basis of what A-Level I most enjoyed (the other contenders were English Literature and Psychology) and so there was no grand plan as to what to do after university. However, in the third year of my UG, a Masters was suggested to me by a seminar tutor and soon to be MA and PhD supervisor. I enjoyed the research elements of my UG the most and was really looking forward to the dissertation side of things. I had always been interested in exhibitions – my UG dissertation was a comparison of an exhibition on George Catlin in the National Portrait Gallery and the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in 2012 compared to Catlin’s display of his own paintings in the nineteenth century. I came across an Irish Village during my MA which was really intriguing to me because I had always conceived of displayed objects and people as reserved for those ‘othered’ in traditional western discourse. For instance, Catlin portrayed American Indians in his artworks. I was very intrigued as to the display of the Irish within Britain, Ireland and the US, which became the subject of my Master’s dissertation in the form of a case study of an Irish village and a PhD topic on a broader study of exhibitions of Ireland in world’s fairs in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
What’s your thesis about?
My research looks at key historical moments between Britain and Ireland and centres the visions of Ireland that were portrayed in the exhibitions of the time. I argue that display became a key platform for the Irish to work out their politicised existences in conjunction with the political and economic sphere as a cultural history of Ireland on display. It starts with the first exhibition in 1851 (the famous Crystal Palace) to consider post-famine exhibitions and then moves to consider Irish migration to the US and the displays of the 1890s, particularly in Chicago. By following the nation building processes of the Irish populace, I consider the early twentieth century displays and Home Rule debates as well as the inter-war period to demonstrate how the visual arena of exhibitions accommodated diverse political needs according to different audiences of Irish, British and American contemporaries.
Tell us about researching the thesis.
I thoroughly enjoyed researching my thesis and was able to travel to the United States and Dublin for archival work (which was luckily funded by M3C). I mainly dealt with textual sources such as exhibition reports and guides, as well as newspaper clippings and a vast array of visual materials in the form of postcards and photographs. The highlight was spending two weeks in the stunning Library of Congress in Washington DC poring over all manner of catalogues and ephemera from the exhibitions.
What was your biggest surprise in the process of doing the PhD?
How much time it took to actually write anything I wanted to keep. I re-wrote and re-wrote things to the point at which they became completely unrecognisable from the first draft. And I am still doing this in trying to turn the PhD into a book! It all became part of the process of developing ideas and working out my argument but often it was a very slow and frustrating process of looking at the same piece of work over and over but eventually it’s something I was proud of!
A work of history that you admire?
Priya Gopal, Insurgent Empire. Whilst only published very recently, the book’s focus on anti-colonial resistance by colonised groups and individuals is an empowering intervention in Empire Studies. Given the pro-empire stance that has been uncovered with Brexit it feels immensely important to highlight resistance to imperial rule at all times, both historically and in the contemporary period. By centring the voices of intellectuals, freedom fighters and revolutionaries, agency is restored to those who were colonised against their will. The book demonstrates the power of history to expand our ideas of well-studied areas and concurrently empower those in the current fight against a resurgence of empire in twenty-first century Britain.
Any thoughts on History and the pandemic?
The New York Times has put together a list of must-read books on the pandemic. By week gazillion of lockdown I may be tempted to have a look…
If you could offer one piece of advice to new postgraduate researchers, what would it be?
Don’t worry! It can sometimes seem like the questions are too big or the research is too difficult to analyse but the answers or at least some semblance of answers will come to you. Just take your time and enjoy the process as much as you can, you picked the topic for a reason, you will have a eureka moment and it will click together at some point.
What are your hopes for the future?
I am going to start a lectureship at Royal Holloway University from autumn this year so an academic career is on the cards!