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British Museum and BBC team up to explore belief through objects

A set of Zoroastrian tiles used in a domestic Parsi shrine.
A set of Zoroastrian tiles used in a domestic Parsi shrine. Photograph: ©Trustees of the British Museum

Patterns of shared belief and ritual over 40,000 years, from the ice age to the present day, are to be explored in an ambitious 30-part radio series and exhibition at the British Museum.

Living With the Gods, presented by the former British Museum director Neil MacGregor, will air over six weeks, beginning this month, on BBC Radio 4. An exhibition of objects that form the core of the series will open on 2 November.

MacGregor – an acclaimed art historian, curator and devout Christian – examines shared rituals, festivals, pilgrimages and sacrifices and the relationship between belief, society and politics.

He said: “Questions of faith have, in recent decades, moved to the centre of the global political stage – an unexpected return to a centuries-old pattern.”

Using objects from the British Museum and talking to experts, MacGregor looks at the connections between structures of belief and structures of society.

Speaking at the launch of the series, he said it was about “belonging and believing. It’s not about individual belief, it’s about how patterns of belief have shaped societies and given societies coherence.

“It’s about what we do on our own and what we do together, and how communities are shaped by rituals organised around an idea.”

A 40,000-year-old sculpture carved from mammoth ivory representing a human body with a lion’s head.
A 40,000-year-old sculpture carved from mammoth ivory representing a human body with a lion’s head. Photograph: ©Trustees of the British Museum

The first object examined in the series is a statue found in a cave in south Germany, dating back 40,000 years, with the head of a lion and the body of a man, created from a mammoth’s tusk.

The object, said MacGregor, had “led us all to think about how ideas, beliefs and communal practices have shaped the way we think about each other”.

Jill Cook, a pre-history expert at the British Museum, said the figure was a masterpiece. “It is hugely original, it shows great technical virtuosity, and it has incredible spiritual presence. It looks at you, it watches you … It’s a very powerful object.”

People at the time were “living on the edge. What they most need to do is find food and keep warm and yet they allow someone amongst them to spend over 400 hours making a sculpture … Clearly, people are trying to come to terms with their environment, to reshape or transcend their environment. They’re thinking, believing, trying to transcend the daily grind of keeping their lives together.”

The object, Cook said, was “the oldest known evidence we have of religious belief within our own species … It’s a wonderful place to start a journey not just of how we believe but that we believe. There is no known society across the world that does not have belief at its base.”

Despite starting in the ice age, MacGregor said the themes of the series were relevant to contemporary societies. “We can’t really make sense of the world today without trying to think about why it is that religion plays such a big part in the construction of group identity, and what appear to be debates about faith are actually debates about communities, identities and when those are under threat how people respond.”

For most of history, he said, “the idea of separating religion and politics is impossible. Both are about how you live with the world around you. It’s a very European, 18th-century idea that you can separate the two.”

Religion is an important force in politics, but less so in the UK and western Europe than elsewhere, he said. Although the series and exhibition was called Living With the Gods, it was really about living with each other.

A Qibla indicator designed to locate the direction of Mecca, made in Egypt in 1582-83.
A Qibla indicator designed to locate the direction of Mecca, made in Egypt in 1582-83. Photograph: ©Trustees of the British Museum

Among the objects to be displayed in the exhibition are Zoroastrian tiles showing the centrality of fire to the ancient religion; a 20th-century embroidered “hundred-bird coat” created by the Miao people in south-west China for a festival to reinforce spiritual links with community ancestors; an inscribed mosque lamp from Aleppo in Syria dating from the 14th century and a model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, on the site in Jerusalem where Jesus is believed to have been crucified, made by Franciscan monks in the 1750s.

Living With the Gods is MacGregor’s fourth collaboration involving the British Museum and the BBC in which he tells stories through objects. He has previously made series about Germany, Shakespeare and world history.

MacGregor was appointed director of the British Museum in 2002 and, over the next 13 years, was credited with transforming it into one of the most dynamic institutions of its kind in the world.

When he arrived, the finances of the 265-year-old museum were in a parlous state and visitor numbers were falling. By the time he left, it was the leading visitor attraction in the UK and the second-most visited museum in the world after the Louvre in Paris.

On his retirement, MacGregor said his tenure at the museum had been “the greatest privilege of my professional life”.

He was succeeded by a German, Hartwig Fischer, the first non-British head of the museum since 1866.

Fischer said Living With the Gods was “about society and communal expressions of belief through objects”. Some showed how societies marked key life experiences such as birth, coming of age, marriage and death.

“The history of conflict and coexistence between different religions and beliefs will also be explored,” he added.

The first episode of Living With the Gods will be broadcast on 23 October at 9.45am and 7.45pm. The exhibition will run from 2 November until 8 April 2018

This article titled "British Museum and BBC team up to explore belief through objects" was written by Harriet Sherwood Religion correspondent, for The Guardian on Tuesday 10 October 2017 03.50pm

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