From the sixteenth to the twentieth 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 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, expressions of scholarly curiosity, and many others. 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.
Defining Lines, a student-curated installation drawn exclusively from the holdings of Duke University’s David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, explores the mutual relationships between maps and empires. Cartography played a pivotal role in the rise, consolidation, and ultimate collapse of imperial regimes. The legacy of how these maps delineated colonial holdings, visualized space, and reinforced control over people, places, and things alike remains with us today. 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.