Living with Gods: peoples, places and worlds beyond. 9 January 2018

Dr Ian Parker Heath reviews the “Living With the Gods” exhibition at the The British Museum

It is no easy task to tell the story of religion in almost all human history, a story which dates back an almost unimaginable length of time to the emergence of Homo Sapiens. Indeed, it is the cognitive abilities required to both create and engage in religion that are defining characteristics of modern humans, distinguishing us from other species such as Homo Neanderthalensis. Yet it is this very story the exhibition seeks to tell through a range of artefacts produced across time and space.

The background to the exhibition is the BBC Radio 4 series featuring the former director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor. In it, MacGregor surveys many, often contradictory, facets of religion. As a cultural phenomenon, it is, or has been, a central tenet of all human societies, and what emerges from the radio programmes, but less so from the exhibition, is the extent of common factors between the many seemingly disparate religions. This is hardly surprising given the scope afforded by 31, albeit short, radio pieces and a temporary exhibition. That is not to say that the latter does not succeed, on occasions it does and in a way that a radio broadcast never can.

Prehistoric carving of a "lion man"

Given the importance of time as a locating device, it is not surprising that the exhibition begins with the oldest artefact, the hugely important ‘Lion Man’. It is important on several accounts. Firstly, dating to around 40,000 years old it is one of the oldest artefacts made by modern humans, and as such an incredibly rare find. Secondly, the fortuitous nature of its discovery and the eventual realisation of its significance. The excavators found around 200 tiny pieces of ivory, and interrupted by the advent of WW2, these were not reassembled into the sculpture we see today until decades later. Thirdly, for such a relatively small object, at just 30cm long, it has a meaning beyond measure; hailed as the first evidence of the human imagination so necessary to transfer the imagined to material form. Its name derives from it’s form, a representation of a being, neither wholly human nor wholly animal. It is our first depiction of the supernatural. As an archaeologist, this alone was worth the price of admission.

The theme of commonality becomes apparent with progress into the body of the exhibition. Visitors are shown how important natural elements of water, light and fire are in religion with examples from different faiths emphasise them to similar effect. I don’t know about other visitors, but astrology came to mind, yet I saw no mention of it. I’d seen the interweaving of astrology and faith elsewhere in the museum – in the John Addis Gallery – but again it was not drawn out. This seemed a little odd, as it might be a relatively easy way to introduce ‘faith worlds’ to the uninitiated. How many people of differing religious beliefs check their horoscope? Elsewhere the exhibition addressed questions of how people experience religion and how belief is made manifest. All these objects relate to how people understand their faith, or how they show their faith. From ritual to pilgrimage, from housing the gods to denying faith in a deity, religion provides a framework for life and has done for many thousands of years. We are shown that the same questions don’t always generate the same answer, but in a surprising number of ways.

There are some issues I’d note. As I moved through I wondered where were ancient artefacts? I was struck by the seeming reliance on relatively recent artefacts, some dated from as long ago as 2017. Given the depth of our human timeline there seemed to be a reliance on extant faiths and many of the objects were less that 250 years old. I for one thought that the museum had quite a collection to draw upon. Chances were missed to perhaps ask questions or to present uncertainties. In the section on housing gods, there were no buildings or structures shown apart from a small shrine. What of Britain’s most famous religious structure – Stonehenge? Is religion in prehistory too difficult talk about? Would faith in prehistory be experienced differently? There has been rather more prehistory than history yet it was largely absent.

The exhibition is perhaps something of an after-thought as is acknowledged on the British Museum’s website as it “accompanies a series BBC Radio 4 with Neil MacGregor” and there will be a book later in the year. Given the scope of the subject matter it was never going to be able to do justice to it. That said, creating exhibitions about religion can be fraught with difficulties, and this one managed to avoid most of them. It is a restrained, conservative glimpse in to how humans have used and experienced religion through time.

The exhibition continues until 8th April 2018. The book “Living with Gods – 40,000 years of Peoples, Objects and Beliefs” will be published by Penguin 1st March 2018.

About Dr Ian Parker Heath

Archaeologist and researcher with special interest in religion in museums and Neolithic Britain.

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