The first object in this show is 40,000 years old. The second is from this year. That pretty much sums up the British Museum’s massive-in-scope, petite-in-execution round-up of the history of religious belief.
Subtitled ‘peoples, places and worlds beyond’, it looks at how every civilisation on earth has had its own religious rituals and – significantly – objects. Significantly because this is very much a show of stuff. Accompanied by a 30-part Radio 4 series and a book, it’s a whistle-stop tour of God artefacts.
Initially, I found this a bit confusing. That 40,000-year-old object is a Barbie-sized figure carved from mammoth tusk ivory. Part man, part lion, it’s a vibrant, somewhat chilling piece that made me want to learn everything about the culture that produced it. That ain’t going to happen here, though. As you jump around eras, continents and belief systems, some patterns emerge, but a lot is lost en route.
I recommend just going with it. I loved the case that contained a Zoroastrian shirt, a Transylvanian coat, some yarmulkes (Jewish prayer caps) and a Victorian bonnet. There are shamanic objects and Congolese ‘terror masks’ (‘his job is to frighten away women and nosy people’). Go along if you want to find out about the Chinese ‘wonder toad’ and ‘Mao’s mangoes’.
The whole thing is a fascinating but entirely unspiritual experience. Despite some drapey cloth and dappling lights that suggest a break-out space at a Scientology conference (a ‘religion’ noticeably absent here), the show mainly suggests that we should regard religion as a profound aspect of human creativity and imagination, something that everyone can comfortably believe in.