Authors: Paul Hepworth, Karin Scheper, Mandana Barkeshli


Educational opportunities available to conservators of Islamic manuscripts are extremely restricted, despite the vast number of existing manuscripts and their cultural importance. In Europe and North America, when training is offered in manuscript conservation it is primarily directed towards Western manuscripts. In other parts of the world, where the largest holdings of Islamic manuscripts are, many of the people responsible for the treatment of these collections have insufficient access to conservation education: sometimes no formal conservation programs are available or the methodologies and materials used are outdated. But often these individuals can afford neither the time nor the money required to attend conservation programs in Europe and North America. Indeed, many cannot obtain the necessary visas to study in the West, even with adequate financial support. And if they overcome all these obstacles, then like other conservators in the European and North American programs, they are taught about Western manuscripts rather than Islamic ones.

The need for specialised training

Following graduation, training prospects for these conservators do not improve. Those working with Islamic manuscript collections in European and North American institutions struggle to gain sufficient expertise and understanding to be able to treat these complex objects. As Western manuscripts have fundamentally different structures than Islamic ones, the treatment of Islamic manuscripts must be based on a deep understanding of how they were made and used. The inappropriate application of approaches used for Western manuscripts can cause considerable harm to their Islamic counterparts. Meanwhile, conservators elsewhere are forced to depend on whatever limited means and information are available to them. Without a strong understanding of conservation principals and the materials and techniques that have become the international standard, conservators can, however unwittingly, damage the manuscripts in their care rather than enhancing their preservation.

Starting point

There are several different needs then which had to be addressed by this curriculum. What are the competencies, skills, techniques and materials that conservators need to know in order to treat Islamic manuscripts? How can a high standard of education in Islamic manuscript conservation be made available to individuals who presently have little or no access to it but who are responsible, nonetheless, for treating these manuscripts? Can delivery of this education be organized pragmatically and made flexible enough so that conservators-in-training do not have to leave their jobs and homes for extended periods in order to acquire it? At the same time, can a formal two-year program of education in Islamic manuscript conservation be offered in a university setting which is more affordable and more accessible to students from Islamic countries?

A two year flexible program

The curriculum was thus designed to be delivered in a full-time two-year program, which is thought to be the minimum amount of time needed to teach the basic needs of starting conservators of Islamic manuscripts. Alternatively, however, for those unable to attend such a program, it is envisioned that it could also be taught in semi-independent modules. These modules could be taken singly to libraries, museums or manuscript-holding institutions and taught on-site to the personnel there. Delivered consecutively, the cumulative instruction of all the modules would lead to the same result as the two year program of education although spaced out over a longer period of time, with intervals between each module, as funding and interest permit.

Adaptable to fit different situations

An extensive bibliography is provided with which any instructor should be very familiar. However, it is the authors’ experience that the students most likely to be involved in this educational program may not have the linguistic skills or prior exposure to academic literature to be able to use the bibliography without direction. The authors recommend that instructors chose a small number of readings for each modular unit and teach the students how to extract information from them. The readings should, therefore, be selected according to the needs and abilities of each particular group of students, as well as for the relevance to the concepts being taught. A two year period of teaching is limited and the program therefore focusses on basic knowledge of the materials found in Islamic manuscript collections, and general conservation concepts such as documentation, preventive conservation and remedial treatment. It also includes sufficient opportunity to practice manual skills. Yet, depending on the specific group of students or the geographic location where the program is being taught, the basic needs may vary. The curriculum is not prescriptive and when a different focus is needed in a specific situation, it is of course open to changes. The International Islamic University of Malaysia (IIUM) and The Islamic Manuscript Association (TIMA) partially supported the development this curriculum. Nonetheless, they are not responsible for the ideas expressed in it. The merits and defects of the curriculum are solely the responsibility of the authors. As stated above, the authors do not intend the curriculum to be seen as some kind of prescriptive and final statement. Parts of the curriculum have been used by them with success, but if it is ever implemented in total, necessary modifications will certainly become apparent. They believe strongly that instruction will have to be adapted to the needs and circumstances of different institutions in different places. Rather, it is a first attempt to formulate ideas and a new approach to how the educational needs of Islamic manuscript conservators can be better met. It is a resource to be used as a springboard for discussion and to encourage others to add to it or to produce curricular models of their own. The authors would welcome feedback and suggestions about how it can be improved.