Blog / Defining Lines: Cartography in the Age of Empire

Posted by J Caldwell

First Thursday Gallery Talk

Duke student curators Elizabeth Blackwood, Mary Kate Cash, Katie Contess, Rachel Fleder, Lauren Jackson, Jordan Noyes, and Jeremy Tripp led a gallery tour of Defining Lines: Cartography in the Age of Empire. This student-curated installation draws exclusively from the holdings of Duke University’s David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library and explores the mutual relationships between maps and empires.As imperial colonial structures rose, consolidated, and ultimately collapsed, the legacy of how their maps delineated colonial holdings, visualized spaces, and reinforced control remains with us. As varied and conflicted as their purposes and perspectives may be, maps continue to function as a powerful and popular medium through which we understand the world and the man-made lines that define and ultimately control it.

Learning To Curate

Photo by J Caldwell - Defining Lines: Cartography in the Age of Empire

Christina Chia from Duke University’s Franklin Humanities Institute writes, “A happy convergence has lately emerged from our Humanities Labs: undergraduates are doing serious curatorial work for Duke’s Nasher Museum, in web exhibits and physical installations.”  Read more.

Defining Lines: Cartography in the Age of Empire

 Defining Lines: Cartography in the Age of Empire


From the 16th to the 20th centuries, Western colonial powers parceled up the globe both on paper and in practice. Colonial cartography catered to governments with a vested interest in controlling land, people, and resources, yet maps were rarely, if ever, simple tools used simply for getting from place to place. They came in various shapes and sizes, from atlases and wall maps to manuscripts and administrative documents. Many were the work of commercial firms as interested in profit as in politics. Such maps were intended not only for colonial officials abroad but also for domestic audiences and consumers, and served many different purposes: decorative art, educational tools, political propaganda, and expressions of scholarly curiosity. Regardless of how, why, for whom, and in what form it is produced, no map is purely objective or accurate. Each one is a visual text that makes arguments as integral to the shaping of politics, culture, economy and ideology as any philosophical treatise or political speech.

Duke student curator voices

The student curators also showcase their essays on the subject of empire and cartography with a mini-website they created.

Defining Lines: Cartography in the Age of Empire


Support is provided by the BorderWork(s) Humanities Lab at the Franklin Humanities Institute, Duke University, supported by the Humanities Writ Large grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.


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