News - Living With Gods

Next month sees a new exhibition coming to the British Museum with Living With Gods: peoples, places and worlds beyond...

Press Release

There is no known culture in the world or in history without religious beliefs. What sustains this worldwide phenomenon? The answer to this question is usually set out in terms of what people believe. By contrast, this exhibition explores the practice and expression of religious beliefs in the lives of individuals and communities around the world and through time. It will also touch on the benefits and risks of these behaviours in terms of co-existence and conflict in societies such as 17th–18th-century Japan, China and the Soviet Union, as well as modern Europe.

Belief is a key aspect of human behaviour and the exhibition will note not only the mystical and sociological aspects of this, but also the innate neurological and psychological triggers. The similarities in the recurrent practices exhibited, despite great variation in what is believed, leads to the question of whether our species might be better known as Homo religiosus rather than Homo sapiens. The exhibition will explore behaviours inherent in everything from modern urban ideas of wellness and mindfulness to pilgrimage and prayer.

The exhibition about is part of the fourth collaborative project between the British Museum, the BBC and Penguin Books. It builds on a Radio 4 series of 30 daily programmes over six weeks presented by former Director of the British Museum Neil MacGregor.

Exhibition Curator Jill Cook says ‘human beings are fascinating creatures. We define our existence by our ability to think and our species has had the neurological faculties – the mind – to transform our ideas into objects that have been a key to our evolution and identities for a long time. As fully modern humans we go one step further: we also symbolise our thoughts in stories and images. What is it we symbolise? Our feelings of love and sorrow, of course, but also beings, vital forces and worlds beyond nature that we venerate and sometimes fear. Such powerful, mystical ideas govern personal lives as well as defining cultural identities and social bonds.’

The exhibition will include everyday objects relating to world faiths, traditional indigenous, archaeological and modern civil practices. It will include intriguing pieces from the end of the last Ice Age that depict beings that do not exist in nature, to familiar objects of everyday practices of all periods – including a remarkable 18th-century replica of a Hindu ceremonial chariot of the kind pulled from a temple to reveal deities during festivals, posters relating to Soviet scientific atheism, and a Chinese badge celebrating ‘Mao’s mangoes’ in an extraordinary example of 20th-century veneration.

The British Museum will take a new, experiential and innovative approach to the design of the exhibition. It will incorporate the sounds, music and silence associated with religious practice, with moments of surprise, achieved with atmospheric lighting effects.

John Studzinski, Founder & Chairman of the Genesis Foundation, exhibition sponsors, said ‘The Genesis Foundation works with prestigious UK arts organisations and is particularly dedicated to supporting projects on the theme of faith. Faith is an integral part of my life, which means that I am conscious of the divine in all sorts of circumstances, in sacred and secular spaces, in nature and in man-made objects. As soon as we began to discuss this exhibition, I was compelled by the idea of uniting in one place objects that explore religious across the world and throughout history. I am looking forward to witnessing people’s responses, both spiritual and emotional, as they make a connection to the divine at the British Museum. When we share an experience of this kind, we remember that we are more united than we often acknowledge, and I hope that this exhibition will remind us of that.’

Living with gods: peoples, places and worlds beyond runs from 2 November 2017 – 8 April 2018 at the British Museum. The exhibition will be accompanied by a BBC Radio 4 series and Penguin book written by former British Museum Director Neil MacGregor (published in March 2018). The radio series begins on 23rd October on BBC Radio 4.

Image details

Christian rosary, Designed by Elsa Peretti for Tiffany & Co. - Barcelona, Spain, 21st century
The 52 Indian emeralds are arranged in groups of 10 for the repeated words of the Hail Mary separated by single gems for the Lord’s Prayer. © the Trustees of the British Museum

Guardian lion-dogs By Matsumoto Satoru and Komatsu Miwa - Arita, Japan, 2015
Lion-dogs guard people, homes, temples and shrines in Japan, frightening away bad spirits. © the Trustees of the British Museum

Fox shrine figure - Mikawachi, Japan, 1826–75
The fox is a spirit messenger for Inari, the important Shinto deity for rice, harvests, trade and prosperity. © the Trustees of the British Museum

Beer can prayer wheel - Ladakh, Jemmu & Kashmir, India, 1981
Reciting sounds or phrases, known as mantras, repeatedly gives a sense of leaving the physical body, emptying the mind and breaking down barriers with nature. Spinning a cylinder containing printed mantras imitates the effect. © the Trustees of the British Museum

Model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre - Bethlehem, Palestine, 1600–1700
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is one of the holiest places of Christianity and attracts many pilgrims. Souvenir models of the church are bought and taken all over the world. © the Trustees of the British Museum

Miniature prayer book - London, UK , 1540–76
This enamelled gold case contains a unique miniature printed book of morning and evening prayers, hymns, psalms and meditations. It was worn on a belt and may have belonged to Queen Elizabeth I. © the Trustees of the British Museum
Painted cloth thangka - Tibet, 1800–1900
This painted teaching or meditation aid, thangka, shows the wheel of life. The lives of humans and the gods are all held by Yama, Lord of Death, whose limbs represent the sufferings of birth, sickness, old age and death. © the Trustees of the British Museum

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