Mon 23 - Fri 27 Mar 2015 | NISIS Spring School 2015 | "Thinking About Things. Images, Objects and Collections" | Rabat, Morocco

From Monday 23 until Friday 27 March 2015, NISIS, in close cooperation with French and Moroccan partners, organised the Rabat Spring School. The overall theme of the Spring School was "Thinking about things: Images, objects, collections." Application deadline: Monday 2 February 2015.


The organisation of the Rabat Spring School was a joint effort by:

- Institut d’études de l’Islam et des sociétés du monde musulman (IISMM, Paris)
- École de Gouvernance et d'Economie de Rabat (EGE, Rabat)
- Faculté des Lettres et des Sciences Humaines, (FLSH, Rabat)
- Fondation du Roi Abdul-Aziz, Casablanca (Fondation, Casablanca)
- Centre Jacques Berque (CJB, Rabat)
- Nederlands Instituut in Marokko (NIMAR, Rabat)
- Bibliotheque Nationale du Royaume du Maroc (BNRM, Rabat)
- Netherlands Interuniversity School for Islamic Studies (NISIS)

Overall theme

Textuality and orality form the classical regimes of enquiry and evidence through which knowledge in the social sciences and humanities has been and is being primarily established and debated. At the core of the endeavour lies a confidence in language-based interpretation or discourse analysis as the best means to reveal social structures, norms and phenomena. Middle Eastern studies are no exception. Collecting manuscripts and epigraphy, and any written piece for that matter on the one hand, recording people’s words and speech on the other, have long kept historians and anthropologists busy. The hunt itself has a rich history of its own, if one only partially written, that bonds purchasers to providers. Since the material and visual turn of the past decades, the range of sources used by social scientists has expanded; images and objects now routinely feature in academic writing.

While Islam is commonly associated to aniconism, figurative iconography abounds in the Muslim world, in the public as well as in the private sphere. Rebel Arab-spring graffiti have recently attracted much attention. Propaganda and advertisement have long used visuality to communicate meaning. National schools of painting are century-old, if not centuries-old (e.g. Qajar art), in large parts of the region. Landscapes, still-lifes, portraits – occasionally nudes – adorn today many an interior. The reuse of Orientalist imagery is itself an old tradition, and one on the verge of becoming an industry. The production and reception of figurative art – or of abstraction for that matter – reveal expanding “art worlds” as well as patterns of consumption and taste that are worth scholarly attention, as they offer views on society (i.e. the popularization of “kitsch”) unvoiced in writing or discourse. Topic and audience of photography and cinematography provide similar possibilities for research.

While semiologists argue that images can be read as “texts”, it is widely accepted that non-textual sources can be ambiguous and moreover polysemous. Objects may be more equivocal than images. Commodities have been used since long by archaeologists to establish chronologies or to map trade routes, but they are not always easily “legible.” Luxurious artefacts produced for trade or donated as gifts supposedly testify of flourishing economies and are meant to convey distinction or superiority, but their performativity cannot be simply measured. Manufactured goods allegedly embody unique information about the place and time, culture and people that produced them – when they have remained in situ or when their origins can be traced back to specific periods and locations. But things do move, whether they are forcedly displaced and decontextualized (e.g. under colonization), or they translocate freely (e.g. within globalization); they may acquire new significance in the process.

Just as “provenance” has transformed art historical writing by shifting the focus from authorship to ownership of an artwork, the “social life of things” opens up myriad new ways of looking at realia. One is to consider them as items passing from one person to another, from one group to another, from one culture to another. The biography of artefacts may be ascertained with more ease than their power. In many instances, their translocation operates within the framework of intentional assemblages of individual pieces. These collections in turn add new layers of meaning to the objects they encompass, and possess their own trajectories, whether they are made of rare books, curios, artworks, historical papers or museum exhibits. The changing labels – the metadata in digital jargon –of collectibles overtime is good testimony of the transformation in identity and perception they can undergo.

In short, this Spring School invited to reflect on the place of images, objects, collections in current scholarship on the past and present Muslim world through specific case studies. Among the questions that were addressed were the methods to get inanimate things to “speak” and the additional value, if any, gained by image- or object-based research.


During the mornings session of Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday, two keynote speakers gave lectures on the state of the art within the field of the topic. On the following afternoon sessions (Monday, Tuesday and Thursday), workshops were organised in which PhD candidates and advanced MA students had the opportunity to give a presentation on how their current research is related to the theme of the Spring School. The workshops were led by a senior moderator. An excursion was also part of the programme. The complete programme can be found here.

Keynote speakers

Pascal Buresi | École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS)
Léon Buskens | Leiden University
Mohamed Saïd El Mortaji | Université Hassan II, Casablanca
François Pouillon | École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS)
Patricia Spyer | Leiden University
Ahmed Skounti | Institut National des Sciences de l'Archéologie et du Patrimoine (INSAP
Mercedes Volait | Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS/InVisu)

Call for application

PhD candidates and advanced MA students active in the field of Islamic Studies were invited to apply for participation. If application for participation had been successful, the following was granted:

-Participation in the complete programme, including one excursion
-An allowance of € 500 for travel and housing expenses (please note that this is a maximum!)

To apply for participation, applications were sent to:
Prof Dr L.P.H.M. Buskens (
Deadline for application: Monday 2 February 2015, 09.00 hrs (CET).
Applications that reached us after that were not be taken into consideration.

This application included the following:

- a CV
- a motivation letter
- a one-page description of your MA thesis or PhD project
- a reference letter of your MA thesis or PhD supervisor.
- a title and an abstract of 300 words (max.) of your presentation.
- a short biography of 50 words (max.)

Please note the following:

1. NISIS junior members - except PhD candidates who are funded by NISIS - do NOT automatically qualify and needed to apply for participation.

2. The number of people who were admitted to the Rabat Spring School was limited!

3. Successful applicants had to arrange their visa (if applicable), flight to and from Rabat, and transport to and from Rabat themselves.

4. A reimbursement of € 500 for the travel expenses took place after submitting original tickets and receipts to the NISIS office; preferably scanned by email.

5. An outline of general instructions for participants can be found here.

Obtaining credits (4 EC)

The NISIS Spring School is part of the NISIS Training Programme. Please read more about course objectives and requirements in the course description of the NISIS Spring School 2015.

Participants (PhD candidates and research master students) who want to obtain credits for participation in the Spring School (4 EC) are required to:

- give a presentation (15 minutes) in one of the afternoon workshops;
- write a paper (2500-4000 words) in which you relate the theme of the Spring School to your own research.

*As a discussant during the spring school, you are required to pose questions for discussion and to actively participate in and contribute to the discussion. NISIS aims at assigning the participants to the different (thematic/geographical) workshops in accordance with their respective field of study within Islamic Studies. Please note that it will not be possible to circulate abstracts of presentations in advance.

Last Modified: 16-04-2015