The British Museum is a controversial edifice. In part a persistently triumphal display of looted treasure – such as the Parthenon Marbles and the Benin Bronzes – by a brutal and supremacist empire, part conservator of important artefacts of social history, its symbolism at a time of Brexit and resurgent nationalism is unhelpful to liberal sensibilities. It remains something of a contradiction that its erstwhile director, Neil MacGregor, combines a defence of its virtue as a world museum with criticism of the British view of its history in general as ‘dangerous’ (Allen, 2016).
MacGregor’s Living with the Gods attempts to ‘explore through objects how shared beliefs help shape societies’. MacGregor substantially (though by no means exclusively) draws from the collection at the British Museum and uses the objects to explore six key themes: pattern, community, theatre, image, God, and the State. Bouncing freely from one continent, tradition and religion to the next, MacGregor’s is as much a virtuoso reflection upon his thirteen years work for the Museum, as it is a genuine attempt at a secular appreciation for religion and its role in the development of societies.
Given the starting point of the British Museum, MacGregor’s focus on objects is unsurprising, and it is an effective structure with which to shape the book. The first object, The Lion Man of Ulm, is at 40,000 years old the earliest known example of externally rendered invention, as MacGregor describes it as ‘a cognitive leap to a world beyond nature, and beyond human experience.’ Recent discoveries of even older cave paintings in Indonesia notwithstanding, it sets up the book well: these objects are expressions of identity and belief. They are technologies, some designed to be discarded – such as the gold figures of the Muisca people of South America ritually cast into Lake Guatavita; or the statues of Durga, floated into the Bay of Bengal after the Durga Puja festival in Kolkata – and others to be guarded and venerated, such as the Torah. These objects are expressions of human will; they are communications to, and with, the outside world.
Some of the objects selected by MacGregor reveal integrated ecosystems and interweaving lives (human and otherwise), both in the physical world and through time. Praying with actual dead ancestors, in the case of Peruvian mummy bundles, or the place of nature in native cosmologies of Vanuatu, seem to confront modern sensibilities of mortality and place defiantly, and reading these descriptions at a time of climate crisis is particularly compelling.
The book has an associated BBC4 podcast (Thirty fifteen-minute episodes), with contributions from multiple luminaries including Mary Beard, A C Grayling, and Grayson Perry. MacGregor also takes in Newgrange and Clare Tuffy of the IPO offers a contribution.
The objects are of course technologies, things outside ourselves that we deploy in order to navigate our environment. The essence of technology, Martin Heidegger argued, has to do with revealing, and truth (Heidegger, 2013). Etymologically, the word technology derives from the Greek techne, and is linked to epistme, words connected with understanding, and knowledge. ‘The merely instrumental, merely anthropological definition of technology is…untenable,’ he continues. Technology is no mere bauble; it is intimate, essential, personal. It is not merely ours, it is us. We can see in MacGregor’s objects – his technologies – that extension of the personal, perhaps even a transference of the essential subject, and a concentration of shared identity in these things.
MacGregor’s generally humanist disposition should present a unique challenge to establishment British ascendancy, particularly in these times of resurgent exceptionalism. “In Britain we use our history in order to comfort us to make us feel stronger, to remind ourselves that we were always, always deep down, good people,” he complained in 2016. His appreciation for the salience of history – all of it – and Britain’s unique role both real and imagined in shaping the last few centuries of social development in the Commonwealth is understated throughout. His is a temporal sensibility, each chapter and each object teaching a different lesson about transience, commonality and relations that reveal a great deal to the modern observer of these things. They pose questions about our understanding of time and space, the challenge our certainties and rationality. Just as Breguet’s skeleton clock – showing both Gregorian and the French Republican calendar – heralded a new religion, that of reason, a sensible intellectual engagement with modern interpretations of society must surely acknowledge the poverty of our excessively scientistic temperament. Having dealt with multiple Gods in different societies, and modern monotheism as an exception in the greater scheme of things, MacGregor punctures the myth that a denial of God somehow simultaneously denies the substance of theology. Like Lavoisier’s law on the conservation of matter, it is never created or destroyed, it merely changes form. Theology may be evolving, but it’s not going away.
Heidegger, M. (2013). The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. Harper Perennial Modern Thought.
MacGregor, N. (2019). Living with the Gods (Penguin). enguin Books.