Translating historical research into visual material

Translating historical research into visual material: the exhibition Empires of Emptiness: Fortresses of the Sahara and the Steppe

The ‘Empires of Emptiness’ exhibition has recently opened at Jackfield Tile Museum, in the Ironbridge Gorge World Heritage Site, offering an example of how transnational historical research can be translated into visual material. The exhibition’s core concepts revolves around a unique combination of high-impact photographs and archival material about the Russian and French empires to offer a new interpretation of how colonial systems expand into deserts, through the case-studies of fortifications.

The exhibition explores these vast spaces of wind, sand and stars, demonstrating how, despite the seemingly limited ‘value’ of arid lands and the significant logistical difficulties they posed, the conquest of deserts has often mobilised sizeable resources from some of the world’s most notable empires. Commenting upon the exhibition, the project’s principal investigator and exhibition curator Dr Berny Sèbe, Senior Lecturer at the University of Birmingham, observed:

‘The combination of high-impact visual and historical material offers a unique insight into one of the least-known areas on Earth, the environment and complex civilisations of the Sahara desert the Central Asian steppe. The exhibition’s remit is to open up a whole new world to visitors – visually and intellectually’.

Sebe_IMG_1278The exhibition, which is open daily until 21 September, concentrates on two colonial conquests in arid environments – the Russian fortifications in the Central Asian Steppe and the vast network of French forts that were built in an attempt to control the Sahara desert. Reflecting upon the parallel between these two major imperial powers in the nineteenth century, Prof. Alexander Morrison stated that

‘in both cases, the two powers, Russia and France, resorted to the same basic tactic, which was building fortresses in the middle of these territories, in the hope that this would somehow allow them to control these populations.’

This is why the study of fortresses has allowed the two historians to provide a variety of new insights into empire-making processes in desert environments. It looks at both the ‘high politics’ of these conquests such as the development of fortress lines across empty spaces as well as the more practical aspects of desert fortifications – construction, everyday life and relationships with local populations.  Empires of Emptiness reveals the fascinating untold story of desert conquests.

The exhibition is a visual and a historical journey which uses breath-taking photography, in particular from the world-renowned archive of multiple award-wining photographer Alain Sèbe, to show vividly the ‘nature’ of the Sahara and the Steppe, which is essential to understanding the strategic and logistical challenges which desert fortresses were supposed to help overcome.

New forays into archival material in France and Russia provide unique insights into decision-making processes, as well as the practicalities of building fortresses in deserts. Berny Sèbe argues that through the case study of desert fortresses, the whole story of imperial expansion unravels under our eyes. We wanted to give substance to the actual processes of conquest which underpinned the expansion of empires whilst examining why empires were sometimes driven towards conquering apparently useless territories, such as deserts.’

Drawing the conclusions of this entangled history of desert conquests, Alexander Morrison notes that ‘there are some really interesting parallels not just between the territories and the peoples that they conquered, or that they attempted to conquer, but between the imperial mentalities which we see in both cases, on the part of the Russians and on the part of the French.

The exhibition is the result of a University of Birmingham-led research project ‘Outposts of Conquest’ funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council of England.

For more information about the project visit  ‘Empires of Emptiness – Fortresses of the Sahara and the Steppe’ is in the Footprint Gallery at Jackfield Tile Museum, Ironbridge Gorge TF8 7LJ, and is open everyday from 10am until 5pm between 23 May and 21 September 2016.  Admission is free of charge.


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