Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, English manuscript, c1450-60. Illuminated page with the beginning of the Tale of Meliboeus.Bodleian Library
In showing us objects and documents from the past, museums help us understand the present. So when a museum designs an event to ask pertinent questions of our time, and even attempts to help solve some of the problems we face, the result can be very special.
Pilgrimage – The Sacred Journey, running at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, from January 11 – April 2 2006, was developed in response to the events of 9/11 and our current problems of extremism and isolation within religious traditions.
It is the first exhibition in a new series presented by the Ashmolean Inter-Faith Exhibition Service (AIFES) and explores the role of pilgrimage in Christianity, Islam, Judaism and the religions of South Asia.
The exhibition aims to show the differences between faiths, and similarities within their religious experiences, through displaying items of their artistic heritage and traditions.
Five thematic sections track the experience of pilgrimage from Departure, the desire to separate ourselves from daily life in the search for physical and spiritual contentment, into the Journey - its goals and its destination.
Map of the Holy Land, parchment illumination. English, c. 1350-1400. Bodleian Library
Sacred Space reflects the devotional requirements of religious buildings and shows how sacred space can be mobile as demonstrated by a portable Vishnu shrine from South India, an enormous temple hanging which transforms any place into a place of worship.
Central Shrine shows the destination point of the journey. The Shikshapatri Manuscript, written by the founder of Swaminarayan Hinduism, Sahajand Swami, was last week visited by a group of Hindu pilgrims.
The Hindus came to worship the manuscript making the exhibition itself a destination of pilgrimage. Return shows a collection of various amulets and talismanic objects which are bought back by the pilgrim to as memorabilia and souvenirs.
Professor James W. Allan, director of AIFES and an Islamic arts teacher, has been deeply involved in developing the concept of inter-faith presentations for the exhibition.
The Nativity. A Pilgrim’s Souvenir, Palestine, 18th century. Shell. Ashmolean Museum
“I wanted to bridge the gap between different faiths,” he said. “It seemed to me that words divided us and I wondered whether art could help to somehow draw us together. My aim was to put, side by side, art works of a religious nature and encourage people to see this extraordinary creative heritage we all have for themselves.”
Among the many items on display are old Hebrew manuscripts, medieval maps of the holy land and a whole host of religious artefacts including Buddhist prayer wheels and robes worn by local pilgrims.
There are also illuminations of Chaucer’s original Canterbury Tales, a qibla indicator (a kind of religious compass that shows the direction in which Mecca lies), and an Englishman’s account of his own pilgrimage to Jerusalem from 1462.
A comprehensive outreach and educational programme has been developed, with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund that includes various events around the city. Families can get stuck in making origami cranes, designing Islamic prayer mats and telling stories of their own experiences of pilgrimage.
Buddhist votive plaque. Terracotta. Burma, Pagan, 13th century.Ashmolean Museum
“Festivals and celebrations are common to all faiths, as are making cards and exchanging presents,” says Julie Mackay, acting Clore Education Officer. “These common ideas that we can all relate to give us a really good ‘way in’ to communicating with children and families and helping them to get the most from the exhibition.”
AIFES are currently seeking funding for future exhibitions and events. Further information can be found on their website at aifes.ashmol.ox.ac.uk.