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Travel without tourism

Diana Hinds visits an exhibition which explores the meaning of pilgrimage

Pilgrimage is a topic which crops up in key stage 3 religious education syllabuses, but how do teachers tease out the sacred meaning and deep personal investment of such a journey for a largely secular-minded class in a way that makes it meaningful for them?

A new exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford is designed to help teachers bring the subject to life. "Pilgrimage: the sacred journey" is the first exhibition to be organised by the Ashmolean Inter-Faith Exhibition Service, brainchild of Islamicist Professor James Allan, with the aim of drawing together people from different backgrounds and religious beliefs in a shared enjoyment of cultural heritage and artistic creativity. It is hoped that "Pilgrimage" will tour the country later this year.

On the face of it, there is nothing of immediate appeal to children in this exhibition - there are no buttons to press, no videos to watch, no interactive games to play - just a collection of objects in glass cases, carefully labelled, in a dimly-lit room.

But when a group of 12 and 13-year-olds from Wychwood School for Girls, Oxford, are shown round by a guide, it is the authenticity of these objects - many of them ancient, many of them intricately wrought and lovingly crafted - that begins to rub off on them. It is as if the more you look, the more you feel the emotional charge that emanates from these precious artefacts.

The exhibition is arranged thematically, taking each stage of pilgrimage in turn - from departure and the journey to sacred space, the central shrine and the return. It incorporates paintings, statues, manuscripts and pilgrims' mementoes from seven religions: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Jainism. But, as Julie Mackay, acting head of education, explains, religions are not equally represented, because the purpose of this exhibition is to celebrate the wealth of Oxford University collections.

Similarities and differences between religions are touched on, linked by the common thread of pilgrimage as a human act of devotion. In one case, a Hebrew Kennicott Bible sits, stunningly, side by side with a 16th-century Qur'an from Persia or India. The "journey" section includes begging bowls belonging to Sufi dervishes, an astrolabe and a wonderful pictorial map of the Holy Land made by a 14th-century pilgrim. There is a brilliantly decorated portable Vishnu shrine, and a large hanging depicting the Rama and Sita legend, both illustrating the idea of sacred space "on the move".

Two sets of votive offerings, one from Catholics in France and the other from Muslims in southern India, both include tiny model babies (from pilgrims praying for a child) and round eyeballs (pilgrims praying to have their eyesight cured) and show what curator Ruth Barnes calls "touching evidence of a common humanity".

Rebecca Salmon, 13, says: "I've always thought that different religions had different gods and different beliefs, but I didn't think they had much in common. Now I'd be fascinated to go to Lourdes or to Mecca."

Louisa Stephenson, 13, says: "This exhibition has basically made me realise how important pilgrimage can be to some people. Seeing all these objects makes you understand more about why people would want to go."

Christine Chalstrey, their RE teacher, says she always uses religious artefacts in the classroom, but jumped at the chance to include a visit to the exhibition in KS3 work on pilgrimage.

"The artefacts on display here give pupils the bridge from where they are to the experience of the believer," she says. "The objects are invested with meaning and may often communicate more effectively the significance of that experience than many words."

Her approach to studying pilgrimage has been to focus on the question: what is the difference between going on a journey as a tourist (which could be linked to tourism work in geography) and as a pilgrim? Her task has been made easier by the fact that two of the girls have already been on pilgrimages.

Yasmine Rahemtualla, 12, recently went on the Hajj with many of her family:

"It was quite hard, but it felt special. It didn't feel like going on holiday -you didn't take photos. Everyone prayed and my grandmother cried because she is 86 and thinks it will be her last time."

Miriam Goodall, 13, took part in a pilgrimage to Holy Island with a youth group from her church. "It's good having people to help you with your faith and the pilgrimage helped - it also improved friendships because we were all quite close together. I felt the church was a lot more important when I came back. This exhibition is quite interesting because you can see that pilgrimage is really important to other faiths, too, and that each religion has special symbols and objects - I only had a vague impression of this before."

At KS3, emphasises Lat Blaylock, editor of RE Today, pupils need to be looking not just at the phenomenon of pilgrimage, but at its spiritual and philosophical aspects. They need to ask what makes a particular place sacred and they can explore the emotions that are generated by a religious journey.

"The important thing is the connection between what they are learning about in religion and their own sense of place and spirituality," he says.

Deborah Padfield, head of RE at Wood Green Secondary School, Witney, enjoyed the evening for teachers at the Ashmolean exhibition, but feels the exhibition would be more useful to secondary teachers - "who teach pilgrimage in a thematic way, which we don't. Doing it thematically, rather than studying one religion in more depth, could be confusing for Year 7 and 8 children."

Joanna Knight, head of RE at Headington School for Girls, Oxford, likes the thematic approach and hopes to take girls to the exhibition.

"I thought it was visually very exciting," she said. "For children to see the individual beauty of these items will create that sense of awe and wonder, an experience you don't get sitting in a classroom talking about pilgrimage or watching it on a video."

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