The Ikea of the East

10th February 2006 at 00:00
Kevin Berry follows pupils round an oriental museum where everything is centuries old, but all in mint condition

Everyone gazes at the splendid 19th-century Chinese bed with ornate wood and ivory panels. Built for a lady, it can be folded flat for travelling.

"A flatpack bed and it wasn't from Ikea," says a passer-by.

Just around the corner at the Oriental Museum in Durham is a magnificent camel specially made for the museum to display exotic camel furniture (saddles and Indian blankets). The camel, affectionately known as Callum, was made by a group of students from Spennymoor School for their Duke of Edinburgh Award. Two years ago Spennymoor students created an exhibition about the Silk Road for the museum.

Some Year 10 GCSE art students from the school are here today to sketch examples of Islamic art and architecture and other items of interest. A handful have been here before with their primary school, but for the majority it is their first time. They seem captivated.

The Oriental Museum is on a hillside at the Durham University campus.

Nearer to lunchtime the Spennymoor students will be going to the university's Institute for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies for a short meeting. The Institute wants them to mount an exhibition of their work.

There are four open-plan levels in the Oriental Museum, which resembles the aircraft-hanger type buildings used to protect the terra-cotta warriors in China. There is a wonderfully calm atmosphere throughout.

Displays are from across Asia, the near East and the Islamic cultures of North Africa. The Chinese collection is particularly wide-ranging and important. Schools, colleges and academic researchers come here again and again. Primary schools tend to be attracted by the Egyptian collection.

Secondary schools are interested in art and textiles.

Education officer Edith Nicholson says: "I would much rather children went away thinking 'wow, wasn't that beautiful?' even if they don't achieve a good picture on the day - I don't think that's as important as feeling 'Wow! look at that'.

"If they don't like something, then they are well on the way to finding something they actually do like. I will often say to them: was this object made because somebody wanted to prove to themselves that they could make it, or was it made to sell?

"None of these children comes from an ethnic-minority background, and there aren't many ethnic-minority families in the region for them to meet. So coming here is very different. It's a whole new world for them."

There is much to see and much to fascinate: one ball within another, all carved from the same piece of ivory; a statuette from Egypt, protected in a bulletproof case. Intricate details and mysterious colours are everywhere.

The many photographs, particularly of a Mongolian market, evoke a strong atmosphere.

"Everything is centuries old," observes Victor Coyle as he sketches. "But it's all in mint condition." Craig Robson and Craig Rutherford sum up the Oriental Museum's appeal. "It doesn't seem very big at first," they say.

"But there are four floors and the artefacts are quite small so there's really loads of stuff to look at.

"You look in the displays and you can see the different materials that have been used and the different ways of making things. When you look at the artefacts closely, you realise how much time and trouble people have taken.

We are both going to come back."

lAdmission is pound;1 for students in school groups On the map The Oriental Museum Elvet Hill, off South Road, Durham DH1 3TH Tel: 0191 334 5694 Email:

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