If the mountain will not come to Mohammed….

Perry's Pilgrim

“If the mountain will not come to Mohammed” runs the famous saying “Mohammed will go to the mountain.” Some people like to interpret this as a saying about finding alternatives when things don’t go as planned. Some people read the phrase and think “It is not really a case of will not it’s more of a case of cannot; mountains can’t move!” These people tend to be very literally minded and miss out on a lot because of this.

When Grayson Perry had his exhibition at the British Museum, he explored –amongst other things – ideas of pilgrimage. Pilgrimage has been a running theme at the BM recently, starting with medieval pilgrims in Treasures of Heaven and can be most clearly seen in the latest offering Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam. What made Perry’s interpretation of the idea unique here is that he presented the British Museum itself as a place of pilgrimage. You just have to see the multitude of camera toting tourists taking snapshots of themselves there to get his point.

Some of them might just be there to tick it off the list as it were, but I like to think that they are there to see the powerful objects on display.

But what about the people who can’t come to see the objects? How can Mohammed go to the mountain?

To get more information on one way this could happen, I’ve been speaking to the Iris Project’s director, Lorna Robinson about Iris and an exciting new project they are piloting: Hands on Classics.

On the inspiration behind Iris, Lorna says “I had always been aware of how lucky I’d been to study Latin and Greek at school. On discovering Latin (and later Greek) my life’s direction changed forever. I often thought how different my life would have been if my parents had kept me in the state system, as the local comprehensive I would have gone to didn’t offer Latin, as indeed most comprehensives don’t.

“I guess the ‘what if’ feelings and accompanying guilt about how lucky I had been continued to haunt me in my time at university. I had been teaching at Wellington College in Berkshire for a couple of terms, which I really enjoyed, and had been thinking of ways to connect the Classics department there with local state schools, and I came up with the idea of producing a magazine about Classics for schools, which could be free to state schools and be sustained through private schools, universities and individuals taking out subscriptions. I wanted the magazine to be a sort of messenger.

“From there, the idea to actually take Latin and ancient Greek into state schools came about and I started contacting state schools. I specifically targeted schools in more deprived regions such as Hackney and Blackbird Leys in Oxford. A handful agreed, and the first year went very well, more schools wanted to be involved, I recruited teams of volunteer teachers and now we have taught Latin and ancient Greek to thousands of children in state schools, as well as involving them in ancient theatre.”

But now, lessons with artefacts have been introduced to the proceedings, “I made the decision a couple of months ago,” says Lorna “when I happened to overhear an Open University lecturer saying that they had an old museum collection of Roman and Neolithic artefacts just sitting around. It seemed too good an opportunity to miss, as I know that bringing these into schools which would not usually have access to such materials would make for very vivid lessons about classics!”

Yes, actual artefacts in the classroom! Actual children actually handling them!

I think I know what you’re wondering now… “I wasn’t too worried about breakages,” admits Lorna “it would be quite hard to break the artefacts since they are fairly small fragments.”

What is the reaction like? “The kids responded really well to a couple of larger pieces of Roman pottery which could easily be envisaged as being part of a whole artefact. They also liked the Neolithic hunting tools!”

You can find out more about the Iris Project here: irisproject.org.uk

You can follow them on Twitter too: @TheIrisProject

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