The Cluster of Excellence ‘Understanding Written Artefacts’ (UWA) at the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC) is a cross-disciplinary and international research project for the holistic study of handwritten artefacts. Our main objective is to investigate the rich diversity of global manuscript cultures beyond traditionally held boundaries of academic discipline, time, and space. Our global perspective encompasses all objects carrying handwriting, from the beginning of writing to today’s digital age.
The CSMC was established in 2012 at Universität Hamburg. Since 2019, the vast majority of the ongoing research projects at the CSMC have been organised in the Cluster of Excellence UWA. Structured in 11 Research Fields and 6 Working Groups, UWA brings together more than 150 junior and senior researchers from over 40 academic disciplines who work on around 60 current research projects. More than 30 projects have been completed already.
In addition to the Cluster of Excellence, the CSMC also houses numerous affiliated projects that our researchers carry out independently or in cooperation with partner institutions. Among them are several major and long-term projects funded by the ERC, the Academy of Sciences, and Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft.
Since the focus of CSMC/UWA is on written artefacts as material objects, the collaboration between the humanities, the natural sciences, and the computer sciences is vital to our research. We have established a unique laboratory system, consisting of three Material Analysis Labs. A central focus of our Labs – the stationary High-Performance Lab, the Mobile Lab, and the Container Lab – is on the development of non-invasive or minimally invasive methods of analysis to warrant sustainable and ethically responsible research on cultural heritage objects.
Our graduate school offers attractive study programmes for early career researchers from around the world. This includes the one-year international MA programme ‘Manuscript Cultures’, a structured three-year Doctorate Programme as well as Summer and Winter Schools on various topics. All courses are taught in English and the Cluster’s programmes provide a basis for exciting career opportunities inside and outside of academia, in Germany and abroad.
Cultural Heritage and Ethics
Written Artefacts are peculiar objects of study. Often, they are irreplaceable parts of a community’s cultural heritage. Doing research on such objects incurs moral obligations, especially in the context of colonial history. At CSMC/UWA, we are therefore not only concerned with understanding, but also with preserving written artefacts. Our cultural heritage projects in Israel, Indonesia, Mali, Nepal, and Tunisia contribute to the long-term protection of valuable collections, which we consider a precondition that must be met before research can be done. Moreover, our Ethics Working Group and Ethics Committee reflect extensively on the appropriate treatment of artefacts, research data, and people involved in the research process, and assist our researchers with advice.
The impact of the research at CSMC/UWA goes well beyond the scientific community. Diverse formats of knowledge exchange bring our researchers in close conversation with other professionals, for example in museums, archives, and libraries, schoolchildren, and the wider public. Our researchers engage in these activities around the world, for example in, Israel, Mali, Nepal, and Tunisia, where we are carrying out cultural heritage projects, but also at home in the city of Hamburg where we frequently offer exhibitions, public lectures, and programmes for pupils from primary school onwards.
CSMC/UWA host several well-established publication series to which our own researchers, but also researchers from many other institutions, frequently contribute. The book series Studies in Manuscript Cultures publishes monographs and collective volumes that often bring together the insights of numerous disciplines, such as art history, codicology, computer vision, epigraphy, history, material analysis, palaeography, and philology, in the assessment of certain manuscript cultures or types of written artefacts. Our journals manuscript cultures and Written Artefacts as Cultural Heritage publish, among other things, exhibition catalogues and practical advice on issues of preservation and conservation.
Before the inauguration of UWA in 2019, the CSMC was the home of SFB 950 Manuskriptkulturen (2012–2019), which in turn preceded a Forschergruppe (2004–2011). More information on the history of manuscript research at Universität Hamburg is available here: