The British Museum’s dazzling new exhibition “Living with Gods: Peoples, Places and Worlds Beyond” has just opened its doors and will run from November 2, 2017 until April 8, 2018, bringing with it an incredible 40,000-year-old Lion Man as its star piece.
This aim of this exhibition is to help visitors grasp the very human characteristic of looking to gods and spiritual beings to help them function and cope better when struggling through life and seeking answers to difficult questions. In all societies of the world, and throughout all time, human behavior can be defined by its overwhelming need for the existence of faith.
In “Living with Gods: Peoples, Places and Worlds Beyond,” the British Museum uses a wide range of objects to visually stimulate and engage visitors, pushing them past mere intellectual questions about gods and beliefs.
“Seeing how people believe, rather than considering what they believe, suggests that humans might be naturally inclined to believe in transcendent worlds and beings.”
One of the most intriguing objects on display in “Living with Gods” is the 40,000-year-old Lion Man which the British Museum acquired. The Lion Man is an ivory carved sculpture that was once carefully tucked away in the Stadel Cave in Germany and has the body of a man with the head of lion. It has been estimated that it would have taken around 400 hours to have carved this sculpture by its creator. who was living during the last Ice Age, according to the Financial Times.
What is all the more remarkable about the ivory Lion Man is that its creator would have been taking crucial time away from their basic survival to carve this sculpture, showing how important it may have been to their religious rituals or even just as a basic inspirational tool, as Neil MacGregor explained on the BBC Radio 4 series Living with Gods.
“So why would a community living on the edge of subsistence, whose primary concerns were finding food, keeping that fire going, protecting children from predators, allow someone to spend so much time away from those tasks?”
One of the objects visitors will notice in the British Museum’s “Living with Gods: Peoples, Places and Worlds Beyond” exhibit is Vladimir Menshikov’s 1975 propaganda poster which features an exuberant Soviet astronaut flashing a toothy smile while he floats in space. At the base of the poster is a proclamation which reads, “There is no God!” This is in marked contrast to the other objects visitors will see around them, showing that there is a very real need for gods for many.
The British Museum brings scientific debate to the cause of belief by way of quotes on the wall, including one by Albert Einstein.
“The most beautiful and profound experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science.”
Other objects to be found at this exhibition include a Jewish skull cap which has the emblazoned emblem of the Leeds United Football Club fashioned upon it, a car pendant featuring Mao Zedong’s photograph, and various Japanese wooden phalluses from two centuries ago.
It is Neil MacGregor’s hope that those perusing objects in “Living with Gods: Peoples, Places and Worlds Beyond” will question the separation of religion from other areas of life, something which occurred as a result of the Enlightenment.
“The Enlightenment was an attempt to say you could separate religion from politics, and that worked, and it led us to believe that it was a natural thing. But for most people, there is no distinction between the religious and the social. And I think we have neglected that.”
— British Museum (@britishmuseum) November 2, 2017
If you’re inspired after visiting the British Museum’s new exhibition, “Living with Gods: Peoples, Places and Worlds Beyond,” be sure to listen to BBC Radio 4’s companion piece Living with the Gods with Neil MacGregor, of which there are currently 10 episodes available, including “The Power of Song.”
[Featured Image by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images]