The second showing of the “Empires of Emptiness” exhibition, curated by Dr Berny Sèbe, Senior Lecturer in Colonial and Postcolonial Studies in the Department of Modern Languages, has been extended twice as a result of its resounding success since it opened on 25 May 2016 in the Fusion Gallery of the Jackfield Tile Museum in Ironbridge, near Telford.

Initially scheduled to close on 21 September, the exhibition was first extended until 16 December, until a further extension to 16 January 2017 was decided in the light of its continuing success. Having attracted visitors from around the world, as was shown by the comments left in the visitors’ book and through oral testimonies, the exhibition has drawn upon its success to reach out to more local audiences in Shropshire and beyond over the winter months.

Exhibition at Ironbridge

Empires of Emptiness exhibition at the Fusion Gallery, Jackfield Tile Museum, Ironbridge (open every day 10.00 am - 5.00 pm until 16 January 2017).

Presenting the results of the AHRC-funded project “Outposts of Conquest: the history and legacy of the fortresses of the Steppe and the Sahara in comparative perspective (1840s to the present day)” (2012-16, principal investigator Dr Berny Sèbe; co-invesigator Professor Alexander Morrison, Nazarbayev University) the exhibition has been instrumental in highlighting the importance of arid spaces in the development of Western empires. At a time when deserts are seen as hotbeds of terrorism in Syria or in the Sahara, it is fitting to alert British audiences to their past geostrategic importance, which warranted their conquest in the nineteenth century in spite of the logistical obstacles which had to be overcome.

The inaugural showing of ‘Empires of Emptiness’ took place on the University of Birmingham campus between 15 February and 23 May 2016. The exhibition combines an outdoor street gallery and an indoor set of displays. Twenty-seven very large format panels, forming nine ‘photographic islands’ first shown around University Square and Chancellor’s Court, present the unique geographical and human environment of the desert and the steppe, as a way of introducing the photographic and historical exhibition about the role and legacy of desert fortifications, which was shown in the Aston Webb Rotunda. Made of twenty large format enlargements of contemporary photographs of the sites of colonial fortresses in present-day Algeria and Kazakhstan and ten historical panels presenting the results of extensive archival research in France and Russia, the indoors exhibition highlights the previously overlooked importance of desert conquests in imperial history. The exhibition brings to the public the results of a major historiographical breakthrough, and reactions to this mode of interaction with non-specialists has produced the most promising results. 

On the occasion of the opening ceremony of the first showing of the exhibition on the University’s campus, the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sir David Eastwood, argued that ‘the combination of visual, archival, physical and interpretive material presented here offers a uniquely attractive account of a project which combined effectively archival research and fieldwork’. He added that ‘the exhibition we are opening today is bringing to Birmingham a unique insight into regions which could seem exotic to many, yet it also provides vital understanding which enables us not just to inhabit the world we live in but to better understand those global communities and those global geographies of which we are part.’

David Eastwood

University of Birmingham Vice Chancellor, Professor Sir David Eastwood, pronounces the opening speech of the Empires of Emptiness exhibition, 7 March 2016.

Charles Forsdick, AHRC leader for the “Translating Cultures” theme, also in attendance that day, commented that ‘the exhibition really is an exceptional way of engaging wider public interest in this research and in this area, and I was particularly excited to see the photography spreading beyond the Rotunda out into the open access outdoor exhibition on the campus itself; in what is a very imaginative use of the campus space showcasing arts and humanities research on an ambitious scale, precisely doing what interest us in the “Translating Cultures” theme: translating research findings into new forms.’

After this second showing in Ironbridge, the exhibition will be displayed on the grounds of the University of Birmingham School, where it will reach a local audience of young people, with a series of activities devised in partnership with teachers in a variety of disciplines including Modern Languages, English literature, Geography, History and Art.

The exhibition is the first of its kind in the UK to use high-impact visual material to convey the results of academic research. Its success both on the campus of the university of Birmingham in the spring and in Ironbridge over the summer and autumn, has revealed the potentially game-changing value of tailor-made visual material to enhance the cultural impact of world-leading research in the arts and humanities.