London: “Living with Gods”@ the British Museum

Anyone who reads this blog regularly will know that I am not religious in any way, shape, or form, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not interested in religion from a cultural perspective (I took a World Religions class as an undergrad and really enjoyed it, though that may have been because it was taught by the nicest professor ever. Seriously. I only ever took the one class with him, and he still sent me a graduation card, which is something that none of my other professors did, even the ones I knew really well). So I was definitely intrigued by the British Museum’s latest exhibition, “Living with gods: peoples, places, and worlds beyond” (lack of capitalisation theirs). When I realised I had somehow gone about three years since last visiting the British Museum (I think I just take it for granted because it’s free and always there, and also, I’m rarely in central London anymore, so I can’t just pop in like I used to), I figured I might as well go check out “Living with gods,” even though you have to pay to see it. Fortunately, now that I find myself in steady employment, I finally got around to renewing my National Art Pass, which means I get to see half-price exhibits at pretty much every London museum again!

I picked a Wednesday to visit (fortunately, I have at least two weekdays off every week, so I still have plenty of time to visit other museums and avoid the worst of the crowds), and was a bit perplexed at first when we weren’t allowed to just enter the museum, but were instead funneled through some weird shed for a more in-depth bag check than was usual. I at first assumed these were just some new security measures, given the rise in terrorist attacks, but thought it was rather a shame that the shed and gates were marring the front of the otherwise grand and imposing museum. However, once I got inside, I heard some people excitedly talking amongst themselves about the Queen being there, and all became clear when I got back home and checked Instagram, and saw that yes, the Queen had indeed been there that day opening a new gallery. So fortunately, I think the time-consuming increased security checks will probably not be a permanent feature.

Wooden figure of Subhadra from the Hindu pantheon. Image copyright held by the Trustees of the British Museum.

The exhibition costs £15, so boy, was I glad I had the National Art Pass!  I knew the main special exhibition at the museum was about the Scythians, but I was still dismayed when directed to the small gallery upstairs, on account of the high price. And I was indeed right to be disappointed, because the exhibition simply wasn’t very good. I was really excited by part of the description given of it on the Art Fund website:  “Rather than concentrating on the enormous variety of what is believed, the focus is on the similarities of practice and expression which recur across millennia. As such, the neurological and psychological aspects are considered, as well as the external manifestations of the mystical within different societies,” which to me seemed to imply that it would explore the psychology of belief, and why different cultures often developed similar belief systems that were formed independently of each other. Instead, it was pretty much just a collection of religious objects from different cultures, with barely any attempt made to tie them all together.  (Photographs were not allowed inside, so all the high-quality photos of objects in the exhibition are not my own, and credited accordingly.)

Lion dog. Image copyright held by the Trustees of the British Museum.

I suppose every room did have a “theme” of sorts, but these were just written on the cloth panels that made up the “walls” of the exhibit, and weren’t really reflected in the objects chosen for each section in any noticeable way, with similar types of objects being found in all of the rooms. That said, there was some cool stuff here, most notably “Lion Man,” who opened the exhibit. He is a 40,000 year old carving found in Germany of a half-lion, half-man creature (who is actually rather cute), and is thought to be the oldest representation of an animal that doesn’t exist in nature. I think they probably should have left him for last, because he really was the high point.

Mexican Dia de los Muertos devil. Image copyright held by the Trustees of the British Museum.

But not the only object I really liked, obviously. I’m including photos of some of my favourites, including derpy lion dog, and this wonderful devil used in Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico (I’m partial to Dia de los Muertos imagery anyway, and he was really fantastic). They also had a big old carved cart from India, used in Hindu celebrations (which is where the word “juggernaut” comes from, because a giant version of the cart was pulled through Jaggannath during their yearly chariot procession, which was misinterpreted by British observers (they thought that worshipers were deliberately throwing themselves in front of the cart as a sacrifice, when really the crowd was just out of control, and some people inevitably got trampled) and the word “Jaggannath” also got corrupted in translation). I learned also that “Hinduism” as a term was a product of imperialism, because Hindus didn’t necessarily see themselves as part of one religion but rather worshiped their choice of a pantheon of gods, and people living in different areas had completely different forms of worship, but the British lumped them all together for census purposes.

Happy godless cosmonaut poster (not its official name, just what I’ve chosen to call it). Image from https://sites.williams.edu/engl-209-fall16/essay-3/our-authority-over-the-bible/.

There were some hilarious angel carvings in here too, but of course, me being me, I was most drawn to the Soviet art that promoted atheism, especially the goofily grinning cosmonaut, above, who is proclaiming, “There is no God!” and a big mural showing all the secular customs that Soviets could adopt to replace religious ceremonies. I was also interested in the artefacts relating to the cult of Chairman Mao, including some weird mango badges, because apparently he gave away mangoes to people at some point, and they practically treated them as holy objects (probably because they were starving, on account of Mao being a real piece of shit). Really, this exhibit was more like a very disjointed collection of the weird and wonderful than any kind of cohesive display or commentary on human psychology or the anthropology of religion.  I also found the advertised “immersive sound and light effects” to be quite lame. There was simply normal dim lighting and a few sound effects that remained the same throughout the exhibit, rather than an actual immersive experience. The cheap looking cloth panels that served as walls didn’t really bring any atmosphere to the table either. If this was a free, or reasonably cheap exhibition, I would have been satisfied with simply looking at interesting objects, but for £15 (or even the £7.50 I paid) I expected lots more. This definitely did not live up to its promise, and it was also a real let-down that the shop attached to the exhibition wasn’t even selling happy godless cosmonaut posters (or anything with the cosmonaut, for that matter. Not even a postcard). The British Museum is always worth a visit, but save your money by skipping this exhibition and just seeing the free stuff, as there’s plenty of weird artefacts to look at in the permanent galleries!  2.5/5.

6 comments

  1. £15 does seem steep for that, I continue to be shocked by London prices! My attitude to religion is much the same as yours. I did a great course as a student on Religion and the Decline of Magic in the 16th century which I keep meaning to read up on again. Like most things I keep meaning to follow up it will probably never happen, but the good intentions are there.

    1. London prices are steep, but this was particularly bad, considering I’ve paid the same for large exhibitions that actually were immersive. I think British Museum prices are probably in a league of their own.
      Religion and the Decline of Magic sounds really interesting! I did an online class on medieval witchcraft that sounds similar, though obviously covering an earlier period in history.

  2. Ha,I don’t know why but it cracks me up that they didn’t even bother to try to live up to their own description of the exhibit. I bet there were lots of meetings and discussions and then it came down to the day and they were just “Put all the hybrid creatures in here.”
    But I was happy to learn the origins of “juggernaut” – I had no idea. And I love the Lion Dog! What a cutie – and of course, the jolly cosmonaut. “There is no god” with him saluting like that is hilarious.

    1. Yeah, it was pretty crap. One of my colleagues just went, and she was super disappointed too, so I know it’s not just me! I would have lion dog as my pet, if he was real. I think since he’s part lion, I could probably persuade him to eat people that pissed me off.

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