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Name: Shahmima Akhtar (UoB SAF representative)


PhD: History 

Thesis Title: Commercial Exhibitions of the Irish in World Fairs in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries in Britain and the US

Thesis Description:

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, tens of millions of people flocked to the World Fairs that followed in the wake of the Great Exhibition of 1851. From London to Chicago extravagant public events showcased the world to patrons. Exhibitions of living peoples as ethnic exemplars were some of the most popular displays. Native Americans, Arabs, Australian Aborigines, Africans, and the Irish, were all displayed performing cultural rites in mock ‘native villages’ to fascinated onlookers. Scholarship on World Fairs has predominantly been focused on colonised extra-European peoples such as Africans and South Asians. However, the exhibited Europeans have been almost entirely ignored. For instance, there is no substantial exploration of displayed Irish people in this period. This neglect is curious given that the Irish were an alienated sub-group. As an internally colonised people, exhibited Irish performers provide a rich case-study for examining how the Fairs became integral to nineteenth and twentieth century attempts to demarcate whiteness and national identity.

My doctoral research will explore commercial exhibitions of the Irish in World Fairs in Britain and the United States. I will consider why exhibitions are important for reading means of cultural production and societal construction. Further, I will divide my chapters according to geography, looking at exhibits in Ireland, Britain and the United States. As a point of comparison I will look at other colonial villages that were exhibited in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, such as Scottish and African villages. I will end by conceptualising contemporary instances of the Irish as exhibits in museums and also art.

My MA dissertation explored ‘Ballymaclinton’. This Irish village was repeatedly exhibited for seventeen years in World Fairs. Chapter One (Theorising Exhibitions: A Multiplicity of Interpretations) explored how exhibitions have been theorised by historians and anthropologists of the field. Chapter Two (Irish Identity Politics: Nation and Consumerism), considered conceptualisations of an Irish identity within the motif of nation as constructed through exhibitionary display. Chapter Three (The Irish Race?: “Whiteness” and Gender) complicated understandings of an Irish race, by interrogating whiteness and its relationship to gender in the context of exhibitions. 

My undergraduate research focused on representations of North American Indians through the works of George Catlin (1796-1872). Catlin exhibited his ‘Indian Gallery’ between the 1830s and the 1850s in America, Europe and Britain. In 2012, his works were exhibited in London for the first time since the 1840s. My research compared and contrasted the reception of his paintings in the 1800s and 2012. Notably, I found a marked desire to address problems involved with cultural representations, with a heightened awareness of the importance of collaboration with displayed communities.


Supervisors and Institution(s):

Dr Sadiah Qureshi and Professor Gavin Schaffer at Dr Mo Moulton and Dr Nathan Cardon at the University of Birmingham and Dr Mike Robinson at Ironbridge Institute


Public Engagement and Impact:

Co-organised Seeking Legitimacy: Authority and Expertise in Modern Britain (20th-21st June 2016). PGR conference part of the University of Birmingham’s Modern British Studies Centre.

Editor of University of Birmingham’s Postgraduate Journal of History and Cultures (January 2016 - ongoing).

Written for the Modern British Studies Blog (July 2016 & October 2015). The blog is an interdisciplinary research platform on nineteenth and twentieth century Britain. (; (

Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery: 'George Catlin: American Indian Portraits' (July - August 2013). During my volunteering at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, I helped with the installation of the George Catlin exhibition, and worked as a gallery interpreter in the Museums' galleries. I also helped with condition checking. 

National Portrait Gallery, London: 'George Catlin (1796-1872): American Indian Portraits' (September 2012 - June 2013). I was part of the University of Birmingham's partnership with the National Portrait Gallery in conjunction with an exhibition of George Catlin's paintings. Three groups researched Catlin's paintings in order to create short films for the gallery's website and conducted a gallery talk based on our analysis. My group examined Catlin’s portrayal of gender. (



BRIDGE Initiative: (The BiRmingham-Illinois Partnership for Discovery, EnGagement and Education) (April 2016). Presented paper: ‘Taking a Short Trip to Ireland!’ Exhibiting Whiteness at Ballymaclinton and World’s Fairs, 1907-1924’, as part of the panel on Race and Empire in Modern British Studies.

Annual Colloquium held by The Barber Institute of Fine Arts: 'Curating Art History: Dialogues between Museum Professionals and Academics' (May 2014). Presented joint-paper with my undergraduate supervisor: 'George Catlin: Aboriginal Histories and the Future of Collaborative Teaching in Museums'. 

Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and the Barber Institute: 'Understanding British Portraits: Contemporary Responses to Portrait Collections' (July 2013). My paper looked at the possibility of collaborative partnerships between museums and higher education institutions. I gave a talk about my experience of working on a research project with the National Portrait Gallery.

University email address:


Twitter: @shahmima_akhtar

Other Social Media: