I recently visited the British Museum’s Living with Gods exhibition in November 2017. I was intrigued by the items of display but felt disappointed at some of the UX decisions. I promised to return to see how the show worked after the entire radio show has been broadcast. Since that first visit, the whole series is now available for download or purchase. There is also an exhibition book.
The show’s premise is that humans are inherently religious beings, even if religion is express in different ways. This may be a controversial premise as is starting the show with the Lion-man of the Hohlenstein-Stadel, a 40,000 year old statuette of a lion headed human. For McGregor this symbolises ‘man’s’ imaginative power to explain the unexplainable. Not everyone agrees with this, but is an assertive start.
The show (exhibition and radio) is thematically arranged and begins with light. This is a common starting point to the Abrahamic faiths, but possibly not all faiths. The show seeks to explore less well known faith traditions for example Siberian shamanism
So many of the individual items come from social conditions that are not examined in detail. You can sometimes read the ironic detachment in the captions but this is very subtle. For example, we are told that Chinese coin swords were hung over the beds of new born infants to prevent the spirits of motherless women from stealing their souls whilst they slept. So much of the social reality of that society is expressed in this item and pithy caption. (Although it was then strange to see the same items sold in the gift shop at the end).
Another issue with the exhibition’s approach is that we are only given a few examples of post-religious religion (notably communist Russia and China). This is not historicised in depth (and mainly focuses on anti-Christian actions). Yet what about other examples or impacts of religious change, such as Hellenistic iconography used to depict christian figures. This is potentially such a huge subject that it is hard to do any real justice to this in a few items. It is still good that the exhibition engaged in this subject because religion has been an important factor in many terrible events in world history.
Ultimately the strength of the exhibition are the individual items. On my second trip I was drawn to the Congo Pende terror mask. This was used during male initiation rites to scare away “women and nosy people” from the men’s camp.
The individual items related to Baba Saheb (Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar) were fascinating as well. An inspiring social reformer who campaigner for Dalits (Untouchables), women and worker’s rights throughout his life, he converted from Hinduism to Buddhism in 1956. Thousands followed him.
Lack of context
The exhibition is worth visiting for the items alone, yet whether they worked together is a different matter. Throughout the show there was a lack of context and it was hard to find out more. One of my favourite items was a Leeds FC kippah. It would have been great to have more about whose kippah it was, where did they wear it, why did they ever support Leeds FC etc?
Items are grouped together to elicit an added sense of meaning but this sometimes failed me. In a section on death a Jewish memorial candle, an ancient Mediterranean gold Orphic inscription and a gorgeous memento mori pendant are placed together. They all look great and they all have something to do with death but how similar are they? Unless you know a lot about each different item and the social and cultural provenance it is hard to really answer this.
At the same time, the show failed to make explicit the similarities between different items. For example, both the Eriteran and Ethiopian cross are covered (with linen) as is the Russian Mother of God Kazanskaya icon (with silver). Although both pieces come from a Christian milieu, these are different cultural traditions. It would have been interesting to know why both cultures developed similar styles of veneration.
As the show is aimed at examining the connections between religious these sometimes felt like missed opportunities. A UX expert could have made this show a solid gold.