Displays and Memories


Shahmima Akhtar

In the latest of a series of posts about the history of display cabinets Shahmima Akhtar, a doctoral researcher in Modern History at the University of Birmingham, follows on Matt Houlbrook, Kate Smith, Chloe Ward and Donna Taylor‘s earlier posts. You can find out more about Shahmima’s work here.

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.

This is the story of a display cabinet that was. It has probably been over a decade since the entire house was painted magnolia and all the old furniture replaced with new. That is why there are few pictures in this story – most of the things have been thrown away, after a rummage through the house revealed.

The display cabinet was placed in my front room – my parents pride and joy. In it was displayed all of their treasures and trinkets. Everything they valued, from family photographs to precious crockery, important religious texts, and general nick-knacks that me and my sisters gathered over the years.

As I traverse my memory trying to remember what the display cabinet used to hold – a few things stick out for me.

My father was an avid charity shopper and the Church down the road was his favourite place on a Sunday. Coming back with what my mother called more ‘’rubbish’’.

One of my dad’s excursions led him to bring home a ceramic of Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit. I remember it vividly. A quaint white-washed house placed neatly in English countryside – with Peter Rabbit just on the outskirts of the 3-D model.

Strikingly, next to this, the display cabinet of light oak with patterned clear glass on its doors held a beautifully embossed Qur’an. Lovingly wrapped in velvet, the words of my parent’s faith was placed prominently on a rehal – a foldable wooden reading stand. Itself made of dark wood and decorated in intricate patterns. All of my sisters had one rehal each, our names inked into them by our dad once we were off the age to start mosque. Although this rehal was probably just a spare one, as ours at this point were being used daily in the local mosque that was someone’s living room after 5-6pm on weekdays.

Pride of place was also given to crockery – my parents were keen collectors of floral tableware. Proudly sitting next to each other was fine bone English china, that my parents had brought for my eldest sister’s wedding, which was only bought out on the fanciest occasions – almost never.

Shahmima 1

And next to this was decorated tableware from Bangladesh, the place of my parent’s birth and what I imagine is perhaps my second home. These were made of melamine – popular in Bangladesh and also sturdy enough to withstand the almost five-thousand-mile journey to England. These were a nightmare to clean as they would stain so easily, so like the china, they were rarely moved from the display cabinet.

Shahmima 2

Other items ranged from school achievement awards to gifts me and my sisters had amassed over our many birthdays. Things continuously piling up, and instead of being removed, just being chivvied along to the back of the cabinet.

Perhaps, this display cabinet serves as an archetype of many more lives – deemed British Asian on a census. Many of my friends had similar collections in their houses, whatever the amalgam of things was inside, these pieces of wooden furniture, almost always a different stain of oak, were eclectic and unremarkable – typical of what is deemed our ethnic-national make-up.

Whilst these two parts of my identity are often more in conflict now as I struggle through the twenty-first century and its rise in general intolerance of ethnic minorities’, it is nice to reflect on a time in the early 2000s when for me, the British and Asian in me and my household were co-existing peacefully. Literally in the same display cabinet, with no-one commenting on its unusualness or uniqueness, but just accepting the display. Accepting the items as parts of a whole.

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