Spectacular New Exhibition

‘Empires of Emptiness –Fortresses of the Sahara

and the Steppe’ opens at Jackfield Tile Museum, Ironbridge

23 May – 21 September, 10am-5pm



A stunning new photographic exhibition is set to open at Jackfield Tile Museum, in the Ironbridge Gorge World Heritage Site, that considers how empires expand into deserts and explores these vast spaces of wind, sand and stars.


Empires of Emptiness – Fortresses of the Sahara and the Steppe’ uses extraordinary photography to show how, despite the seemingly limited ‘value’ of arid spaces 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.

The exhibition, which is open daily from 23 May 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.

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 high-impact 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. Commenting upon Empires of Emptiness, Berny Sèbe 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’.

New forays into archival material in France and Russia, by the project’s investigators Dr Berny Sèbe, principal investigator, and Prof. Alexander Morrison, provide unique insights into decision-making processes, as well as the practicalities of building fortresses in deserts. Sèbe adds 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.’


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 and is open everyday from 10am until 5pm between 23 May and 21 September 2016.  Admission is free of charge.




For press enquiries, images or a review visit, please contact:

Pat Edgar                                                        Richard Aldred / Paul Gossage

PR Matters                                                     Ironbridge Gorge Museums

Tel:  01494 764932                                       Tel:  01952 435900 / Fax:  01952 435999

Mobile: 07836 786043                                  Email:

Email:              May 2016




Arts Council England, The European Regional Development Fund and Heritage Lottery Fund support the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust