sacred journey2

A statue of the Hindu god Ganesh joins other objects of religious devotion and veneration in the exhibit “National Geographic Sacred Journeys.”

Staff photo— Jerry Larson

Touchstones of faith for some 300 million religious followers around the world meet the public at the Mayborn Museum beginning Saturday with the opening of “National Geographic Sacred Journeys.”

The touring exhibit examines the trips, or pilgrimages, that the faithful in many of the world’s religions take to affirm or renew their beliefs by visiting holy places and sacred artifacts.

Places represented include the Ganges River and the Kumbh Mela festival for Hindus; Bodh Gaya in Bihar, India, a sacred site to Buddhists; the Great Mosque of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, the destination of the hajj for millions of Muslims; Mexico City’s Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, revered by many Mexican Catholics; and Jerusalem, a city holy to three of the world’s largest faiths, Judaism, Islam and Christianity.

Videos and oversized 8-foot-by- 12-foot photo walls tell those stories, but some visitors will find as compelling the show’s artifacts, both replicas and real: a full-size replica of the Shroud of Turin, held by some Christians as the burial cloth of Jesus Christ; fragments of Dead Sea Scrolls, some of the oldest examples of Old Testament books; a trunk that early Mormon leader Brigham Young brought from Illinois to Utah; a replica page of a Gutenberg Bible; a throne built for the Dalai Lama during his 2010 visit to the United States; and an actual stone block from the Western Wall of the Second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem.

The tour, a collaboration between the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis and the National Geographic Society, comes to the Mayborn from Indianapolis and Waco may be its last stop, though the National Geographic Society is considering an exhibition at its Washington, D.C., headquarters.

“We feel extraordinarily lucky,” said Rebecca Nall, the Mayborn’s assistant director of exhibits, communication and visitor services.

Many American Protestants may not see pilgrimage as an important part of their faith, but that’s not the case for many, if not most, of the world’s major religions, said Baylor world religions scholar Philip Jenkins, distinguished professor of history in Baylor’s Institute for the Studies of Religion. “Pilgrimage is one of the most important forms of religion worldwide in history,” he said.

Though many faiths consider sacred texts at their center, pilgrimage and veneration of holy relics or artifacts demonstrate belief in physical form. “Think about religious expression as separated from the written word,” he said. And in a time widely viewed as a secular age, pilgrimage in the world is at an all-time high, Jenkins said.

Americans accustomed to thinking about religious pilgrimage as occuring only in other countries might be surprised at a major religious site within the United States, Jenkins said: the Roman Catholic church Santuario de Chimayo, located just north of Santa Fe, New Mexico, which annually draws more than 300,000 visitors.

What “National Geographic Sacred Journeys” provides visitors is a broad look at religion around the world and through human history, allowing them to find commonalities and differences. One surprising commonality: the commercialism that springs up to supply the religious souvenirs — trinkets, figurines, articles of clothing, vials of holy water -— that pilgrims buy to take home.

One dimension that “Sacred Journeys” can’t capture is the feeling of being in the company of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of believers at a holy site — an experience that often is profound and life-changing for the pilgrim.

The exhibit’s oversized photo walls — bird’s-eye vantages of Mecca, Kumbh Mela, the square in front of the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the like — do provide a sense of the sea of humanity that flocks to those shrines.

Another human element shaped “Sacred Journeys” as well: active believers in the faiths represented. Wabash College humanities professor emeritus Raymond Williams, a leading scholar in immigrants and their religious traditions, led an interfaith advisory group in the exhibit’s planning.

Visiting the Mayborn exhibit this week during its setup, he said what “Sacred Journeys” attendees encounter resulted from a dialogue between scholars on the essentials of different faiths and museum officials on the objects and items that would best communicate those points.

As important as the items on display was the manner in which they were treated and shown. Christy O’Grady, Children’s Museum of Indianapolis conservator and exhibition manager for collections, and her staff worked with religious leaders in determining the right and respectful way to show artifacts and ritual objects.

Buddhist monks, in one case, instructed O’Grady in a proper clothing sequence to dress a manniquen in the robes of a Tibetan Buddhist monk.

“In this exhibit, we are giving as much care to (the questions) ‘Are we exhibiting it appropriately? Which side of the object is appropriate? Which part needs to be seen?’ she said during a break in exhibit installation at the Mayborn.

In several cases, the items on display have personal stories attached. The souvenirs from a hajj to Mecca, for instance, came from the family of a Children’s Museum of Indianapolis staffer.

The human response to “Sacred Journeys” proved gratifying, if sometimes unexpected. Museum officials were surprised to find some visitors leaving tokens of worship and respect at some of the displays, requiring an improvised response of how to remove and store those items with respect.

In other cases, the objects and exhibit stations prompted the sort of intergenerational discussion that planners intended. “We saw a lot of what we had hoped for: children, parents and grandparents talking about their traditions and what they believe,” O’Grady said.

That interaction with the varied expressions of religious faith and belief make “Sacred Journeys” a worthwhile journey of its own, said Baylor’s Jenkins. “If you have any interest in religion, this would be an exhibit to see,” he said.

The Mayborn Museum will host several public events during the exhibit’s fall run:

• “Holy Journeys, Holy Destinations,” a panel discussion from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Oct. 6 in which Baylor professors Robert Creech, Candi Cann, Matthew Wheelan and Elise Edwards talk about what makes a place holy and how sacred sites change the lives of those who visit them. The discussion will take place in the Mayborn’s SBC Theater.

• “Festival of Faiths,” a sharing of food and faiths from various cultures, from 2 to 5 p.m. Oct. 30. Sponsored by the Waco Interfaith Conference and the Mayborn Museum, the free event will take place in the museum’s mezzanine and SBC Theater.

• Interfaith Students Panel Discussion, personal experiences, beliefs and practices shared by Baylor students of differing religious faiths, at 6 p.m. Nov. 10 in the SBC Theater. Sponsored by BU Better Together and the Mayborn Museum.

• “Jerusalem,” screenings of the National Geographic Entertainment documentary on the history and culture of Jerusalem, held at 11 a.m. 1 and 3 p.m. Saturdays and 2 and 4 p.m. Sundays in the SBC Theater. There is a separate admission charge of $3, $2 for Baylor students and museum members.