British Museum Stories


assyrian lion

Whenever I visit the British Museum, two things always happen: I find something that grabs my attention that didn’t before, and leave, disappointed that there wasn’t enough time.  On Saturday, among the throng of Bank Holiday weekend visitors rushing through the galleries, tick-boxing exhibits and robotically snapping artefacts with their mobile phones, I was grabbed by the Assyrian stone bas-reliefs showing the military campaigns of King Ashurnasirpal and The Royal Hunt.  The detail is astounding, and the story-telling compelling.  Today, in an age of instant on-access HD surround-sound multimedia entertainment, tales recorded on stone nearly 3,000 years ago took me to a very human world.  The bowed heads of families taken as war booty about to be sold into slavery, the last dying gasp of the hunted lion, driven to bleeding exhaustion.

Some stories are told in the monuments themselves, like the detail on Statue of Ramesses II, detail created by an artisan who knew that people looking up would never see it, at least until the statue was later toppled.  The graffiti on a pediment from the corner of the Parthenon.  And that’s part of the magic of the British Museum; this beautiful monument to knowledge is probably the world’s greatest pop-up storybook, biographies of long past peoples carefully assembled by untold thousands of professional and amateur academics.

Sadly though, some people ignore this work, and place the exhibits in their own context, in their own version of events.  Sometimes I listen in on tour groups, surfing the expertise of the tour guides for free from the periphery of their tour group.  My friend and I came across a museum tour group standing around a colossal Assyrian statue.  The tour guide described the statue, when and where it was built, who was responsible for it.  Then one of the tour group asked, “was this before or after the Flood?”.  The guide responded, “this was a post-flood civilisation, but this civilisation was abandoned by Jehovah”.  I looked at my friend, he smiled and shook his head.  Even here, in these grand halls of the accumulated knowledge of the history of humanity, ignorance walked.  I hope that at least just one of the group has been inspired by the British Museum, as I have been, and look beyond the ignorant scrawlings in a holy book for real truth, the real story of our world and our peoples.

One thing that the British Museum records is that of all the civilisations that walked this planet, nearly all of them had a god or gods to pray to, to sacrifice to.  All of those gods are now just historical anthropological curiosities in books and on objects dug out of the soil.  If just one of the people on the tour put their own god in the same historical context, then their visit to the British Museum will have been worthwhile, and not just another tick-box entry of places to see.


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3 responses to “British Museum Stories”

  1. Kevin Rigg says :

    As a young man I decided to get an education and enrolled as a mature part-time student at university and studied history and theology; the two are closely linked. I studied the ethics of Christianity, Islam and Judaism, the development of British society influenced by groups such as the Quakers and was pleased to receive lectures from Humanists, Druids, Atheists and others.
    I have been constantly surprised by the efforts and reasoning of philosophers who, whilst not being ‘religious’, display all the wisdom portrayed in Abou Ben Adhem a poem by James Hunt. The gist of the poem (have a read I’m sure it’s on the web) was a condemnation of Christians who thought themselves higher than others and who saw other religions as heathen. The character Ben Adhem is a Muslim, but could equally be an atheist. The message is clear, surely at the end of the day the message of all of the great religions is quite secular – try to have a good life and live in harmony!
    I remain tolerant of the religious views and practices of others although I have seen at first-hand high levels of hypocrisy by those purporting to practice their religion. Equally, I have seen and met wondrous people who have formed their life philosophies based on not only religion but also decency, humanity, charity and love. Traits that anyone can aspire to achieve.
    I guess the bottom line is we should recognise the place religion has had in developing the world, good or bad, and at least recognise that the tourist guide was placing an event into the annals of recognised mythology.
    Some would say the modern day equivalent of Sunday Mass is more likely to be viewed at St James Park on a Saturday afternoon. The mass congregation meets to deliver praise, or sorrow, they place their money into the collection box, chant their hymns, and pray for that great day of reckoning; a cup (holy grail) almost visible but just out of reach. They beautify their saints and pray for deliverance from the evil (black cats). Even though their money disappears and they never quite achieve deliverance they remain faithful – some simply cannot understand why!
    Great illustration and I love the flowers on the beach (just south of the pier?). Are they tulips?

    • brian paget says :

      Thanks Kevin, you’re right, the shot was taken just in front of the lookout just south of the pier. I don’t really know what kind of flowers they are, I think they’re tulips as they’ve been appearing in the same spot for the last few years, probably the result of bird droppings.

      I don’t see religion as such a benign force. As you’ve pointed out, no philosophy has the monopoly on ethical behaviour, and I think that many people are good not because of their religion, but because they are good people. Unfortunately, religious organisations and many people of faith don’t believe in the same ‘live and let live’ philosophy as most reasonable people, and are constantly trying to interfere with other people’s bodies and behaviour.

  2. Ken says :

    What a tolerant post Kevin Rigg, congratulations. Not a religious person myself, but, in my humble opinion, each to their own, just as long as they allow everyone else the same freedom.

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