Our New PhDs: Dr Shahmima Akhtar and the Cultural History of Irish Identity on Display

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!

Our New PhDs: Dr Howard Carlton on Cosmology, Chronology and Crises

This is the first in a new occasional series of interviews with some of the folks who have recently defended their PhDs here at the Centre for Modern British Studies at the University of Birmingham. In the current absence of in-person celebrations, we celebrate them and their work here.

Name: Howard Carlton

Title of PhD thesis: Cosmology, Chronology and Crises: trauma and the evolution of the universe in the nineteenth century.

Supervisors: Dr David Gange and Dr Sadiah Qureshi

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Tell us a bit about how you came to do a PhD.
My first degree was in Biology in the early 1970s. I began a full-time PhD at Oxford but was constrained by financial and logistical difficulties. The ambition remained, however, throughout my working career in IT and when I retired at a relatively early age I took up the academic baton once more. I switched to history as it had always been an interest, encouraged by my father’s choice of reading, and had regretted having to give up the subject at school despite having had a really enthusiastic and inspirational teacher. As a prerequisite I completed an MA in the History of Christianity at UoB with David (Gange) and then began the lengthy process of researching and delivering a PhD thesis on a part-time basis.

What’s your thesis about?
My thesis argues that the significant impacts of existential trauma, life threatening illness and psychoactive substances on the apparently rational intellectual processes associated with the development of scientific thought have not to date been fully recognised. Whilst the historiography of the development of ideas about the origins and ongoing oversight of the cosmos has for some time acknowledged the influences of social, cultural and material factors it is now necessary to build on the recent turn to the history of emotions to establish an understanding of the influences of psychology and physiology on the selection of selves to be performed by the subject.

The thesis details the evidence available from the lives of a number of nineteenth-century astronomers which informs our understanding of the complex inter-relationships between psyche and soma that drove parallel changes of perspective in theology, metaphysics, and ideology as well as cosmology. Application of this frequently overlooked mode of interpretation will allow historians to achieve a greater understanding of the underlying phenomena which actuated intellectual developments in the past and which are still relevant to today’s knowledge-making processes.

Tell us about researching the thesis.
Many nineteenth-century publications and relevant secondary sources are now available online, so much of my research time was spent working with a laptop, trying to remember to make a note of any reference which I might later make use of. There were a few archive trips which provided a stimulating leavening of the digital spadework. I particularly enjoyed a trip to Birr Castle in the midlands of Ireland where the papers of Lord Rosse, a noted telescope builder, and his various astronomical correspondents are held. Other trips to the Royal Society in London and Leeds University yielded interesting insights into the mentalities of Sir John Herschel and Edward Clodd respectively.

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Lord Rosse’s telescope, then

 

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Lord Rosse’s telescope, now

What was your biggest surprise in the process of doing the PhD?
I suppose the thing that surprised me most was that I was able to start the journey without knowing where it would end. There was no clear eureka moment. As I became more familiar with my subjects and also did the ‘reading around’ recommended by my two excellent supervisors, a new hypothesis gradually emerged and in the fullness of time became my main argument.

A work of history that you admire?
A book which I admire (and can only aspire to emulate from some considerable distance) is Boyd Hilton’s Age of Atonement. He forensically dissected the many flavours of theological thinking which influenced the political and economic policies of the period in which much of my thesis is set.

Any thoughts on History and the pandemic?
The current situation with Covid-19 and our response to it reminds me that similar problems have, of course, occurred in the past. There is at the moment a justifiable perception that the disease strikes randomly and death, normally a distant prospect for many people, is hovering more closely. Our predecessors often fell back on theological tropes as explanations for who could or would be infected and as consolation for the dying and bereaved. This palliative is no longer available to many and we are still struggling to find viable alternatives – hence the initially high, now wavering, trust that the similarly faith-based and equally schismatic new religion of science will save the day.

If you could offer one piece of advice to new postgraduate researchers, what would it be?
In retrospect, I think that one key learning which takes a while to dawn on a PhD candidate (and that no-one is likely to tell you) is that you will, in due course, become the expert in the necessarily narrow field in which you have become immersed. You will eventually find that you have to take the initiative and move beyond your supervisors’ subject knowledge whilst at the same time remaining sensitively attuned to their sage advice on relevant historiography and broader questions of style and structure.

What are your hopes for the future?
I have submitted several proposals for a monograph based on my thesis to publishers (one at a time, not all at once) and am awaiting a further response from the current recipient. Initial reaction seems favourable but only time will tell …

‘Constructing Histories’: exploring the potential of charity archives

On Wednesday 1 July 2020, the University of Birmingham will be hosting a conference exploring the value of charity archives. The event will bring together academics, researchers, aid workers, and archive professionals. Adopting an inter-disciplinary approach, the conference will examine the unique value of charity archives in exploring new perspectives in a range of disciplines such as the history of medicine, education, post-colonial studies, and humanitarianism.

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Material in the Save the Children Archives includes papers relating to Eglantyne Jebb, one of the founders of the charity

The Study Day aims to provide space for critical reflection of the activities of various charitable agencies throughout the 20th century and towards the present day. Although part of the day will focus on work undertaken by the Save the Children Fund (SCF), we wish to include papers which focus on other charitable organisations, in order to develop connections and identify similarities and differences within the sector.

A call for papers has been issued with a deadline for submissions of 27 March 2020. We would especially welcome paper proposals that engage with aspects of:

  • How charity archives support any aspect of academic research;
  • Diversity, race and inclusion within charity archives;
  • The value of oral history to organisations’ institutional memory;
  • The challenges of managing and accessing charity archives in the digital age;
  • And the wider question, do organisations make enough use of their own history?

 

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Shelves of newly catalogued material in the SCF archive

Papers should be a maximum of 20 minutes in length. Preference will be given to those proposals which stimulate dialogue and debate, and engage with broader topics. Please send enquiries and proposals of no more than 300 words, by Friday 27 March 2020, to: special-collections@bham.ac.uk

This event is being arranged as part of a two-year Wellcome Trust funded project to enhance access to the Save the Children archive which is held at the Cadbury Research Library. The archive comprises 2000 boxes of administrative papers, project reports, publications, photographs, and ephemera. The archive is currently being fully catalogued and preserved as part of a Wellcome Trust funded project to enhance access and discoverability of this incredible resource for research.

We are currently half-way through this project and, so far, over 8000 individual catalogue records have been created in CALM, our archival management system. These catalogue records are rich in detail and comprise metadata which will aid individuals’ research. Over 800 boxes of material has been fully catalogued; re-housed into acid-free folders and boxes; and screened for Data Protection issues. Closure decisions are now clearly documented and accompanied by release dates, thereby providing clarity and transparency to researchers.

When the project is completed in December 2020, researchers at the University of Birmingham – and further afield – will have access to an incredible resource for the study of humanitarianism in the 20th century.

Mark Eccleston

Archivist and Project Manager

Film Screening: THE MAYOR’S RACE

Film Screening: The Mayor’s Race

Followed by q&a with filmmaker Rob Mitchell

30 October 2019 at 3pm

Arts Building Main Lecture Theatre

University of Birmingham

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In celebration of Black History Month, the School of History, Arts, and Cultures together with BRIHC is holding a special screening of THE MAYOR’S RACE, a new documentary film about local politics, race, and society.

Marvin Rees is a ‘mixed race’ man in his 40’s. Having experienced poverty and racism in his life, he wants to shape the society he lives in and believes political office will give him the power to do so.

In 2012 he runs for mayor in Bristol, UK. The journey into politics hits him with rejection, failure and an inner struggle that eventually leads to the biggest challenge of his life. THE MAYOR’S RACE is about the desire to overcome doubt and the boundaries between social background and power.

Post Conference Feedback and Contemporary British History Prize for Best Postgraduate Paper

It’s raining gently as I write this, but I’m still feeling the warmth and energy from last week’s conference, when sunny coffee breaks seemed to give way to electrifying panels in regular succession.

If you were there, could you:

a) fill out the survey asking for feedback

b) if you like, nominate a paper given by a postgraduate for the prize sponsored by the Contemporary British History journal (email me m.moulton at bham.ac.uk, or tweet at CBH)

If you weren’t there, but care about the project of MBS, fill out this survey anyway, with a focus on the final page. We’re looking for co-conspiritors to make #MBS2021 (and beyond) sustainable and pertinent.

One week to go! An introduction to the opening roundtable on de-centering British Studies from the peripheries

By Jacob Fredrickson and Martha Robinson Rhodes on behalf of the MBS postgraduate and early career researcher group.

With MBS 2019 only a week away, the programmes have gone to print, name-tags are on their way, and Birmingham is bracing itself for the biennial arrival of hundreds of British studies scholars for three days of vibrant, inspiring and challenging conversations. We thought it was a good time to introduce in a little more detail what will kick off this year’s conference, a half day session organised by us, postgraduates and early-career researchers working within the Centre for Modern British Studies here at Birmingham.

We firstly want to thank the Centre for again inviting us to kick off discussions and frame the intellectual agenda for the next few days.

This year, we’ve titled our workshop ‘Decentring British Studies From the Peripheries’. In doing so, we’re hoping to both provide a welcoming and productive space for junior scholars, and articulate the value and importance of our voices within the field as a whole. This is particularly important at a moment where postgraduates and early-career researchers face increasingly hostile conditions and labour practices.

The issue of precarity and casualisation in academia has been central to our discussions as postgraduates and early career researchers over the last few years. In January 2015, we published a working paper where we argued, “The ongoing shift to a market-based education system (which can be characterised as the neoliberalisation of the University) continues to re-imagine and re-construct the material conditions in which we work…Young academics setting out to write original and insightful PhD dissertations also appear to be the most obvious potential victims of job scarcity, declining research funding and pervasive long working hours.” To explore these issues in more detail, we have hosted a number of conferences exploring the relationship between our working conditions and the sorts of history we’re able to write.

This year, we want to harness the energy of our previous discussions towards a slightly different intellectual enquiry. For our roundtable, ‘Decentring British Studies From the Peripheries’, we have asked the speakers to consider contributions that are focused on an aspect of their own research, with precarity as a category of analysis – rather than presentations about precarity per se.

In line with the theme of the wider conference, we want to think beyond boundaries by returning to one of the most vexed historiographical boundaries in our field, the periphery. In this roundtable, we want to return to the periphery in the time of precarity.

Firstly, the ‘time of precarity’ draws our attention to the pressing need to return to the periphery in post-Brexit, neoliberal, imperially nostalgic Britain. Thinking through the boundaries of Britain and of British identity – who gets to be British, who gets to set the boundaries of the periphery itself, where these boundaries are drawn – all of this has a pressing political purpose at a time when national identity is at the centre of a toxic and pernicious politics, with worryingly increasing appeal.

We also want to consider the ‘time of precarity’ in a second sense; the temporalities of our precarious labour. Postgraduates and early career researchers are increasingly expected to do more in less time. This impacts what research we can conduct. From having the time, and money, to visit archives, to balancing teaching with writing on exploitative contracts, precarity marginalises. As MBS PGRs wrote in 2015, ‘we stand on the edge of the academy, it is our precarious position of becoming historians that most keenly reveals the relationships between academic and non-academic, between experts and non-experts, between history and our present moment’.

The periphery in the time of precarity is a useful heuristic to reflect on the impact of our working conditions. We want to stimulate discussion of the periphery utilising precarity, and precarious labour, as a category of historical analysis. How, and in what ways, does our own knowledge becomes privileged or marginalised? How does this shape what can be told about modern Britain?

We have invited six scholars across career stage to reflect on these themes in relation to their own work. It is our hope that this session stimulates a conversation on the relationship between our labour, our working conditions and the limits to what it is possible to know about modern Britain.

Speaking on the roundtable will be:

Lara Choksey, Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Exeter

Jonathan Saha, Associate Professor at the University of Leeds

Laura Sefton, Postgraduate Researcher at the University of Birmingham

Olivia Havercroft, Postgraduate Researcher at the University of Manchester

David Geiringer, Associate Lecturer at Queen Mary, University of London

Ruby Daily, Postgraduate Researcher at Northwestern University

Following the roundtable, we will be hosting a number of smaller workshops that will run co-currently. These will focus on the practicalities of becoming a scholar within British Studies, including sessions on journal articles, book contracts, and job applications to universities outside of Britain. We have also organised a session for more senior colleagues, exploring practical ways established academics can build solidarity and support junior scholars. Please see the programme for full details on this.

We hope that those who are attending the conference over the three days will attend, even if you aren’t a postgraduate or early-career researcher. Precarity affects us all, and we hope to make clear that the political and historical questions it poses are of pressing importance to the field of modern British studies as a whole.

See you next week!

 

A Guide to Travel, Accommodation, and Food & Drink in Birmingham

All of us at MBS look forward to welcoming you to Birmingham in July.

We are lucky to be able to share with you the Brum Secrets Zine, produced by MBS’s own Ellie Munro. We draw your attention especially to pages 6-10 for great restaurant, café and bar recommendations. Scroll down for more links on accommodation, travel, and food from the University’s main site as well.

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University of Birmingham’s information on accommodation

University of Birmingham’s information on travel

University of Birmingham’s information on food & drink

Registration Deadline Extended

We have extended the registration deadline. You can register here.
All presenters must register before the conference.

Please be advised, if you require a visa invitation letter to attend the conference we cannot now guarantee that we will be able to provide you with one with enough time for you to apply for the required visa. You register at your own risk and we are not able to provide a refund for late applicants.

For folks who aren’t presenting — we can take payment and register you on arrival, but you would need to bring the correct amount in cash or pay with a cheque. We do not have the facility to provide change or take payment by card.
And that’s all the technical formal stuff! Can’t wait to see you in July!