An Exhibition Unlike Any Other
Some of the items on display are contemporary. The first you see, however, was made by human hands – wait for it! – 40,000 years ago.
I stopped in astonishment. This is a figure, carved from the ivory of a mammoth tusk, 31 centimeters tall, found in a cave in Germany. It represents neither a human nor an animal but is half lion and half man. How this carving was used by those early humans can only be guessed at, but it was not a toy. It must have had great significance because it would have taken at least 400 hours of work to produce. In the museum’s careful words:
“he is the oldest known representation of a being that does not exist in physical form but symbolises ideas about the supernatural.”
This was an exhibition at the British Museum: Living with the gods. The crowds snake their way through several ‘rooms’ with artifacts from every epoch of human development and every continent of the globe. All the major religions of today are represented, as well as beliefs that have long disappeared such as those of the classical Greeks and Romans.
I hesitated before embarking on this Letter. If you have a faith which is profoundly dear to you, might you be uncomfortable at the thought that objects from your own religious practices were on display for anyone to see, and alongside articles from other religions? If other faiths in today’s world are anathema to you, might you be dismayed at their presence here? If so, I would understand.
There has been criticism and I will come to that later. However, this is not an exhibition of comparative religion. The curators have not put beliefs on display. They are looking at us: at the things we do, and the objects we use, in the practice of our religious beliefs. In their own words:
“By looking at how people believe through everyday objects of faith, this exhibition provides a perspective on what makes believing a vital part of human behaviour.
Seeing how people believe, rather than considering what they believe, suggests that humans might be naturally inclined to believe in transcendent worlds and beings. Stories, objects, images, prayers, meditation and rituals can provide ways for people to cope with anxieties about the world, and help form strong social bonds. This, in turn, helps to make our lives well-ordered and understandable. “
Such a wide variety of items has been brought together! We are shown an exquisite Muslim qibla in ivory and gold, made in Istanbul in 1582 and used to establish the direction of Mecca for prayer. A colourful Tibetan wall-hanging depicts the Wheel of Life from Buddhism. Equally colourful is a south Indian painting, made around 1400, depicting a scene from the life of Harishchandra in which the pious king bathed in the Ganges at Varanasi. There are religious artifacts from ancient Egypt, from indigenous American peoples, from Africa and the Far East. Among Christian objects, one unexpected item is a sheepskin coat, beautifully and richly decorated, made for church-going in Transylvania.
This was not simply an exhibition. It was assembled in conjunction with the British Museum’s former Director, Neil MacGregor, who gave a 15-minute radio talk every weekday for six weeks. In each talk he described one or two of the exhibits, visiting countries of origin and discussing with present-day practitioners and historians what we might learn from these items.
In one broadcast he spoke about how people have often made images “to open a gateway to the divine”. He illustrated this with two exhibits. One was a brightly coloured statue of the Hindu goddess Durga, made in clay, just 18 inches high; the other an icon showing the child Jesus in the arms of Mary – this from the Russian Orthodox branch of Christianity. The makers of such images conform strictly to their sacred traditions of representation, not taking an artistic initiative. And, just as images of Durga annually fulfill a major role in communal celebrations, so too Christians praying with the aid of the icon would know that they were part of a timeless community of worshippers.
The exhibition could have been arranged, room by room, in chronological or geographical order, or featuring each faith in turn. Instead, and in keeping with the idea that the real focus was on people, it follows a series of topics. Each tells a story about how humans approach the practice of their religion. Items from different faiths and different epochs are placed side by side. Is this perceptive? Or superficial?
For example, a statuette of the goddess Artemis of the Ephesians, the divine protectress of that ancient Greek city, is considered in conjunction with one of Our Lady of Guadalupe, patron saint of Mexico. Another topic considers the practices of faiths that shun images of the divine and emphasize the word: Islamic calligraphy on a sixteenth-century mosque lamp, for example, is placed near a small silver rod that Jews would use in following the text of the Torah, tracing words on the delicate parchment without the damaging touch of a finger.
Other topics include festivals, pilgrimage, daily prayer, rites of passage and – as you would expect – death. There is even a section on the anti-religious state doctrines of Revolutionary France and the Soviet Union: a cosmonaut grins down at you from a Soviet poster declaring that he found no god in the heavens.
With each topic we are encouraged to see ourselves, as humans, coming up with comparable practices in very different times and places and across dissimilar religions. The exhibition has its critics, however. A reviewer in The Guardian had this to say:
“…this show casually throws together artefacts embodying a vast variety of beliefs and asserts that they all share similar meanings. In reality, they have all been stripped of context and history, robbed of specific content. “
On the other hand, a review in The Telegraph was entitled “An exhibition so powerful it makes you cry”. If you would like to investigate, you will find photographs of exhibits on the British Museum website and the talks may be downloaded as BBC podcasts.