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Defining Lines: Cartography in the Age of Empire

Student Co-Curated Exhibition

September 19, 2013 – January 06, 2014
Map from holdings of Duke University’s David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library
Duke students gave a talk on the installation they helped to organize. Photo by J Caldwell.
Duke students gave a talk on the installation they helped to organize. Photo by J Caldwell.

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.

Four Duke undergraduate students enjoy the final installation of the installation they co-curated, Defining Lines: Cartography in the Age of Empire. Photos by J Caldwell.
Four Duke undergraduate students enjoy the final installation of the installation they co-curated, Defining Lines: Cartography in the Age of Empire. Photos by J Caldwell.

Defining Lines, a student-curated installation drawn exclusively from the holdings of Duke University’s David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, explored 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.

Support was 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.

Student Gallery Talk

BorderWork(s) Lab students 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. The BorderWork(s) Lab is housed at the Duke Franklin Humanities Institute, which produced this video, and supported by the Mellon Foundation Humanities Writ Large grant.
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