The bin beside the display cabinet


Kate Smith

Matt’s recent blog looked at display cabinets and the roles they can play in the creation and continuation of family histories across generations while Chloe reflected on the distance and affection that can be read in her Nan’s collection of Princess Diana paraphernalia. Display cabinets can act as touchstones. They exist as part of the backdrop of everyday life until they are made visible by some event or act – a blog post, a eulogy or a house move. But what happens when the display cabinet is the room? What happens when the display cabinet is the entire house? How might we define the display cabinet and how does it resist definition?

Recently I visited the sixteenth-century manor house Snowshill Manor and Garden, Gloucestershire for the first time. The architect, artist, collector and craftsman Charles Wade (1883-1956) purchased the Manor in 1919 with the fortune he inherited from his father (an inheritance particularly dependent on his father’s sugar plantations in St Kitts). The primary purpose of the house, according to Wade, was to provide the space necessary to adequately display the collection he had slowly amassed since the age of seven. Charles and his wife were relegated to the small Priest’s House next door; it was his collection that took centre stage. In purchasing Snowshill he wished to ensure the continuation and expansion of his collection and that he could continue to live by his motto ‘Let nothing perish’.[1]

Taken out of context and reconfigured within the different rooms of Snowshill, the collection remains in place today for visitors to engage with and reflect upon. It is a wonderful place to visit. Samurai, spinning wheels, bicycles, wooden chests, porcelain vases and lacquer cabinets line the walls.  Display cases within display cases, filled with ever-smaller objects designed to inspire wonder.  What really struck me about Snowshill, and about the collection and its display, was that display and display cabinets play upon the idea of inclusion. Such an allusion was particularly prominent at Snowshill, after all Wade had treated the entire house as a display cabinet. It continues to hold wonders and encourages visitors to delve in, walk around, see and feel. The house contains the allusion that everything is there, a wide-ranging collection of things covering many different aspects of human endeavor and the human condition. But such inclusion is just an allusion.

Smith One

Display cabinets can never contain everything; they are distinctly shaped by exclusion. Although Snowshill seems to hold plenty (it is the entire house!), it is deeply marked by Wade’s choices and predilections. In analyzing display cabinets then, we need to be aware of what is left out. Of who is not featured, of what is missing, unspoken and forgotten within the collection of things that is there and is chosen. More than hidden in plain sight, what is forcibly hidden and excluded from display? In being aware of such gaps and absences we can begin to get a little nearer perhaps to the difficult histories that might be contained in display cabinets. We need to consider what a display cabinet can and cannot hold, where they are located, what forms they take and what they don’t contain. We need to ask, how can histories of exclusion or violence be read from a display cabinet?

Smith Two

Although they might attempt to, not all display cabinets are up to the task of holding a particular familial, material, cultural or political story. Their stability and coherence begins to breakdown when they are poked and prodded, when the china begins to be used and the chip is revealed. At the same time as reading absence and exclusion then, we also need to question neglect. Despite living in a materialistic world, the display cabinet cannot hold everything. While some items are forcibly removed and are not allowed to enter the display, others lie outside the display cabinet due to benign neglect. They are ignored and unvalued over time.   How does the seemingly benign absence of certain objects within display cabinets (long thrown away, not passed down, a mere memory) complicate our understandings of consumption, acquisition and possession? How might they allow us to contemplate histories of neglect and waste?

In looking at your display cabinets it is important to consider not only what is there and what was there, but also the things that didn’t make it and to understand why. Charles Wade wished to live by the motto ‘Let nothing perish’, but of course things did, things do. We need to know what fails and disappears as much as what remains.

 Do you have a display cabinet or case in your family? If so, we would love to learn more about it — to see your hidden objects and hear the stories you have to tell. Please feel free to share your stories through the comments section on this blog.  

[1] See Jonathan Howard, ‘Wade, Charles Paget (1883–1956)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, May 2008 [, accessed 25 May 2016]


4 thoughts on “The bin beside the display cabinet

  1. Another great example of ‘house as display cabinet’, which you may already be aware of, is the Sir John Soane museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The architect of the Bank of England acquired two adjacent houses in this square in 1792 and 1809. He modified the interiors to display his collection of archaeological artefacts and art in eclectic and unusual ways. In particular, there is a fascinating room which contains many paintings and cartoons housed in sliding and folding frames in order to maximise the number of objects available and also to present a variety of different themes within the same room – very much a display cabinet writ large …

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