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 specieshas 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 andsocial 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.