Didar: Stories of Middle Eastern Manuscripts
Didar offers a journey into how the works in University of Melbourne’s Middle Eastern Manuscript Collection were produced, collected, and traded.
The Middle Eastern Manuscript collection holds some 190 internationally significant volumes. It was collected predominately by Professor John Bowman (1916-2006) who arrived at the University of Melbourne in 1959. Upon his retirement in 1975, the extraordinary collection Professor Bowman amassed was moved to the Baillieu Library, where it existed, safe but invisible, for twenty years.
This beautiful, fascinating and mysterious collection transcends time and place. It is impossible to open the pages of the any of the volumes in the collection without feeling a sense of excitement, wonder, respect, and admiration. The content of the texts is often familiar – medicine, astronomy, mathematics, poetry – but the origins of the knowledge they hold has been lost in time.
Didar is an exhibition which follows the research into this collection by the Faculty’s Grimwade Centre for Cultural Material’s Conservation. Through an examination of leather, paper, script, ink and illuminations we learn of artistic practice, social motivations and the composition of materials. The materiality of the texts speaks clearly across the continents, countries and centuries and reveals much about the great Middle Eastern traditions of book production and collecting.
The collection comprises scripts in Arabic and Persian, as well as Turkish, Urdu, Ethiopic, Syriac, Hebrew, Sanskirt, Pushtu, Prakrit and Mongol. Included are Islamic religious texts, Qur’ans and commentary on the Qur’an, as well as significant poetic works, educational textbooks and writing on history, biography, astrology, mathematics, philosophy and weaponry.
This amazing collection is a path to knowledge – come look inside these manuscripts to see all they have to offer and the potential for discovery.
DIDAR OPENS EARLY AUGUST
Please email the Arts Office of the Dean if you would like to be notified when the exhibition opens.
Didar is a Persian word 'to visit’. It is the moment when evocative memories transcend time and place. It is the excitement of hearing from the beloved. It is intimacy with a subject, and the anticipation of a new experience.
Didar solicits feelings and triggers connections.
The Middle East has long been a centre of teaching, learning, trade and exchange. The manuscripts that Professor Bowman collected were created in important centres of culture and education, in workshops devoted to book production.
Many of the manuscripts contain inscriptions and other provenance documentation that is evidence of the trade journeys of the manuscripts. The names of key people feature prominently in the collection; the collectors, traders and dealers who commissioned them, used them, and bought, sold and traded them.
Across the Middle East master papermakers, calligraphers, illuminators, and bookbinders had important ateliers where they practiced their art and sold their work. In these workshops they also trained the next generation of artists and artisans. Many produced education resources such as treatises that contain information on their practice and recipes used in the creation of the manuscripts. Research using historical treatises provides detailed information about the manuscripts in their place of origin. Such information is very useful when examining the manuscripts; assisting with accurate documentation, helping to understand deterioration, and informing the choice for scientific analysis.
Understanding the raw materials and the recipes used in the manufacture of these materials provides insights into what materials were available and where they were available, and how they were used to create the paper and inks used in manuscript production.
The 11th century treatise of Ibn Badis from Samarqand describes in great detail the preparation and production of handmade papers. Paper makers collected the raw flax reed, moistening and combing it until it became soft. The softened reed was soaked, dried and washed over many days. It was then pounded in a mortar until very fine and then slowly dissolved in fresh water to obtain a silky viscosity. The flax was finally beaten by hand and laid down as a flat sheet attached to a wall to dry.
By the thirteenth century, after the introduction of paper making techniques into Europe by the Moors, European papers were also used in Middle Eastern manuscript production. These European papers are easily identified by their watermarks, the faint impressions captured within the paper fibres during manufacture which are the trademark of a specific paper mill.
Carbon ink is the oldest ink created and was used in Egypt as early as the 4th millennium BCE. Carbon ink is extremely stable; however, it stays on the surface of the paper and can be removed physically. Iron-gall ink dates between the 2nd-4th century. This ink stains the paper fibres, and it is permanent. However due to its acidity and the reactive nature of transitional metals, it eventually starts to decay the paper. Persian master calligraphers tried to create an ideal ink which has the stability of carbon ink and the permanency of iron-gall ink (but without its destructive nature). Their solution was an ink made with all the ingredients of both inks in set proportion and measurements. This recipe is given in the form of poetry.
For more information please see the Library's Middle Eastern Manuscripts web page.
Awakening objects and cultures
The Awaken exhibition includes almost 200 items from the extensive Donald Thomson Collection during the Melbourne University anthropologist’s 50-year career.
The exhibition explores a collection of objects, animals and plants that emerged out of the relationship between Donald Thomson and many Aboriginal people from three main source communities: the Pintupi in the Western Desert, and the diverse cultural regions of Arnhem Land and Cape York.
Awaken is curated by Worimi Nation film-maker, curator, storyteller and Head of First Peoples at the Melbourne Museum, Genevieve Grieves, with Rosemary Wrench and Shonae Hobson (Kaantju).
The exhibition aims to foster a greater understanding of the cultures, knowledge and values of several Australian Indigenous communities and language groups and reaffirms the University’s commitment to Reconciliation with its focus on a holistic, inclusive and two-way relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
‘Awaken’ highlights the deep and abiding relationships that exist between communities of origin and objects held in museums. Objects are a rich source of knowledge and understanding, but they truly awaken when connected to their communities.
The Awaken exhibition has been curated in consultation with communities, using local knowledge alongside Donald Thomson’s fieldwork notes to awaken the stories of these objects and explore community’s deep and abiding connections with them.
Watch the video to find out more.
Awaken has a focus on community participation and cross-cultural exchange, highlighted by several displays within the exhibition
Stories of connection
This area of the Awaken exhibition features objects, images, and archival footage from the Donald Thomson collection, as well as three short films, commissioned to highlight the deep connections between people, place and cultural material.
These films share the spiritual, cultural and social significance of collection material, bringing objects to life through their relationship with their source communities.
Each story presents a young person from the three main source communities Donald Thomson worked with: Western Desert, Cape York and Arnhem Land.
To view the films please click on the images below
Jessie Nungarrayi Bartlett
Jessie Nungarrayi Bartlett from the Western Desert region, talks about a sandal from the collection and what it represents to her and her family.
Ruby Kulla Kulla
Ruby Kulla Kulla who is from Cape York but has lived most of her life in Melbourne, reflects on the impact of the collection to her own sense of family history.
Ishmael Marika from North East Arnhem Land, discusses some original film from the collection and the responses of community Elders to that film footage.
Also included in the narrative section of the exhibition is:
- A display of objects still made and used by communities today, highlighting the ongoing connection between past and present
- A collection of Donald Thomson’s personal belongings, articulated through the experience and memories of his daughters. This offers a reflexive view of the collection, the process of collecting and the value of community engagement
Massed object display
This section of Awaken features objects that came to the collection through Thomson’s relationship with the Pintupi and diverse communities of Arnhem Land and Cape York.
Many of these objects do not yet have stories associated with them and this journey of discovery will facilitate teaching and learning and encourage a deeper connection to community.
This section of the exhibition features innovative digital labels, including 3D images and virtual reality of the objects, to unlock the objects from their display cases and 're-place' them into the contexts from which they came.
These digital labels have been loaded onto digital devices that are available at the exhibition.
Find out more about this on the Faculty of Arts Digital Studio website.
Donald Thomson Collection
Visit the Museums Victoria website to find out more about one of the most important collections of anthropological objects in the world.Visit Museums Victoria
The Faculty of Arts acknowledges everyone who has made the Awaken exhibition possible.Read more
Awaken room brochure
The Awaken exhibition highlights material objects from the Donald Thomson Collection. To learn more please download the exhibition room brochure.Download brochure
The University of Melbourne respectfully acknowledges the traditional custodians of the land on which the University stands, the elders of the Wurundjeri-wilam people of the Kulin Nation, past, present and future. The University seeks to follow in their traditions of welcoming others to this place and of treating the land and its peoples with respect. The University acknowledges these lands have been part of knowledge passed on to new generations for thousands of years, and it continues that tradition.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander visitors are advised that the Awaken exhibition may contain images and voices of people who have died.