In which I go to ‘Living with the Gods’

I have membership of the British Museum. It was one of the first things I earmarked for my disposable income (along with coffee and the ballet), because I tend to find that I want to go to all of their exhibitions – and I like working in the members room from time to time.

Last week, I took myself along to their new(ish) exhibition ‘Living with the Gods’ which I was looking forward to because – as you might have noticed – I am into matters of belief. And also, the BM once did one of the best exhibitions I ever saw that engaged with belief (Grayson Perry’s Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman). I had not listened to the radio series associated with it, which it’s probably worth mentioning as it will have affected my thoughts on the exhibition – which are mixed. That said, you shouldn’t have to have done advance prep in order to access an exhibitions major themes and ideas. Things like radio shows, podcasts and books/catalogues should be ‘going deeper bonus material.’ And maybe those things do just that for this exhibition, but – BUT – taken solo, the exhibition is a bit too lightweight.

The exhibition ostensibly seeks to explore, “[the] apparently global phenomenon” of the development of shared narratives of believing and belonging that, “seeks to explain their community’s place in the world, and to reconcile the transience of an individual life with the enduring existence of the group.” The British Museum has a great collection for this, and the opening item is the completely marvellous Lion Man. However…

There are two major problems with the exhibition, from my perspective. The first one is that it treats various elements of belief and various religions in discrete blocks (for want of a better word). You have light, fire, water, and how they feature in different religions, but not how they interact with each other or any connections across religions. This then doesn’t link into the blocks on practice, including prayer, worship rituals and festivals – and they don’t link to each other either. There’s no cross-reference between faiths or sense of how they interact or do different things with the themes picked out. It’s like ‘all religions do these things and they’re all the same.’ Spoiler. They aren’t. It’s infuriating, and you don’t build up a picture of how belief operates in people as an integrated experience.

This is exacerbated by the second problem, which is summed up in the opening question of the exhibition. You walk in. You admire the Lion Man. You turn to enter the rest of the exhibition. And you see this question on a board talking about humanity’s
natural tendency to seek meanings, idols and rituals to form bonds and understanding

Should the human species be defined as wise, homo sapiens, or as believing, homo religiosus?

Way to reveal your basic assumptions about belief, Exhibition Curators. Wisdom and belief are opposites? Well, you and I are clearly going to disagree about that, but also this is a problem for curating an exhibition about belief because it means that you are a whole lot less likely to take the subject with the seriousness it deserves. And indeed, the fundamental tone of the whole exhibition is:

Isn’t belief fascinating
Isn’t belief quaint
Aren’t humans just a little bit silly?

When it moves beyond that, it moves into the dangers and problems of belief, including fear, prejudice, persecution, and violence. And ok, this exists. But, without wanting balance for balance’s sake, there is actually a counterbalance to be presented to this (aesthetics, art, architecture and music, and public service, for example, if you don’t want to get into the value of a sense of meaning to human wellbeing) and it is just… absent.

The penultimate display (on religion leading to conflict etc) ends with this quotation from Einstein:

The most beautiful and profound experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science

But it turns out that this is completely out of the context of anything. It follows religious conflict and comes before art that engages with interfaith conflicts and the refugee crises in the mediterranean world. It’s not a quote that is associated or connected with anything else in the exhibition and there’s nothing around it to help you reflect on that idea. There’s just this odd juxtaposition of Einstein being positive about an aspect of belief and religious strife.

And then you exit through the gift shop.

If you’re a member of the BM: go, and let me know what you think. If you’re not: save your pennies.

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