I was recently invited to attend the British Museum’s Living with the Gods exhibition to review it for this blog. Living with the Gods sees the return of Neil MacGregor, former director of the British Museum and a veteran host of public history radio shows. The exhibition links up with a new radio series on Radio 4.
This exhibition follows on from the success of various collaborations between the BBC and Neil, including A History of the World in 100 Objects. A fact which should strike the longtime fan of the museum as a confident return to form rather than a loss of courage by the new director Hartwig Fischer who took over from Neil last year.
40,000 Years of Peoples, Objects and Beliefs
Living with the gods contains several items from a variety of cultures and periods to demonstrate different aspects of “religion” (both beliefs and practices). It focuses more on the practice of religion, but the implied belief systems which empower the individual objects is touched upon.
Items from different material cultures are placed next to each in order to depict the universality of particular acts or concerns. Human nature is such a universal experience that this works to some degree. However, human nature is also always defined by its society. This is both in terms of internal hierarchies but also within wider cross-cultural lines of transmission and influence. The exhibition does not always examine this as fully as it may have done.
A strength of this approach however, is that MacGregor has chosen a combination of “historical artifacts” and “everyday items” [my terms] which illuminates the long history of religion, even if some items tend to be of what was called in my Paris Days the St Severin school of art. Less “thick description” and more broad culture.
A few treasures stand out however. The items of the indigenous people of the North were fascinating. The Arabic calligraphic glass vase was superb. The Russian Mother of God Kazanskaya icon was beautiful.
Some of the juxtapositions were highly effective. The Russian indigenous healing dolls next to an icon of the healing saints of the Russian Orthodox church were illuminating. Others less so. The Shinto god shelf and Hindu house shrine were obvious partners on one level, but I didn’t glean anything from them being placed next to each other. For example, what inspired this similarity?
The exhibition ends with items related to the ongoing tragedy in the Mediterrenean: the Lampedusa Cross and art works commemorating the many thousands of people who have died to seek safety. The caption for once does not flinch away from discussing the impact that this migration has had on those fleeing and on domestic politics. It’s a truly powerful confrontation with the forces of history. I felt quite humbled. It showed the power of museums at their very best.
A need for better UX
Whilst an abolutely essential and deeply interesting show it is let down in parts by poor user design. The content is amazing but it could do with better contextualising and organisation. Because of this the show lacks a certain cohesiveness.
For example, a lot of items did not have detailed captions. The sign merely gave the name or provenance of an item and then said as discussed on Radio 4. At the time I visited the exhibition (in early November), a lot of the radio shows had not yet been broadcast. Presumably the shows will be collected together and preserved after broadcast and a visitor towards the end of the exhibition may even be able to play the relevant podcasts on their iPhone 8s as they walk round. Without a sense of background context it can be hard to understand why objects are grouped together.
Another notable absence is the lack of an exhibition guidebook. I still have my leaflet from the 100 Objects exhibition. A hardback exhibition book will be published in March, to coincide with the last month of the show. Normally such books are printed to coincide with the entire run of an exhibition.
Added to this, there is currently no serviceable website offering more details about all the objects. The Museum has a very interesting and detailed blog post and the BBC an online gallery, but neither are complete. This could still be improved upon and would be of benefit not just to the exhibition visitors but people listening to the series at home.
The set design could also be improved. Several of the items are small, intimate objects of domestic and personal devotion. Given the space available to the designers, it was a shame that items were bunched together making them hard to see. The flow of the crowd had not been planned for either. There were several blockages as people crowded around particular stands. The few captions were placed beneath items on a shelf that people tended to lean on to get a better look.
Several of these issues are probably the result of working between several big organisations and I imagine will be ironed out as the show proceeds. Otherwise it is a very interesting show.
Overall, the show is well intentioned but let down by some unfortunate UX / IA decisions. Given the rich and varied range of objects together, a good UX designer could have turned this into a new standard for exhibitions. As it is, it’s a fine show and is a credit to both the British Museum and the BBC but it could be so much better.
I plan to return to the exhibition later in its run in March 2018 to see if the show makes more sense when all the radio shows have been broadcast.
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