Choose your church

I’ve been playing at being a tourist over the Bank Holiday weekend: two days in London alongside people from every corner of the globe. It was salutory to realise that what I took wholly for granted during the years I lived in the capital was captivating those seeing it for the first time.

We started at the British Museum, experienced enough to know we should limit ourselves to a single gallery. It was my first time in the African collection and first encounter with the Benin bronzes, which had the same effect on our Victorian ancestors as those London tourists did on me - forcing them to change their thinking about something they thought they knew.  According to Victorian commentators,  seeing such creativity,  sophistication and technical craft emerge from a place many knew only as ‘The Dark Continent led to a greater appreciation in Europe of African culture and art.

Leaving aside the important arguments about whether these, and many other treasures in this wonderful Museum, should be returned to the countries from which they were - mostly - stolen, what made the visit so magical was viewing them alongside a United Nations of other tourists. Somehow there was a sense not only that we were sharing the experience of viewing these artefacts, but they represented a record of human creativity and ingenuity that was our common heritage.

What’s more, the British Museum - as if in recognition of our shared ‘ownership’ -  has opened these treasures to us completely free of charge, simply providing outsize piggy banks at the entrance suggesting we might want to support its work and help maintain open access.

Artists in living

It was the same at the Tate Modern the next day.

We poured through the giant Engine Room and upstairs into galleries brilliantly curated into themes to challenge and provoke us into thinking about the crossover between individual and collective meaning and experience.

Every room buzzed with the energy of conversations in dozens of languages, and yet I believe we understood each other and reacted emotionally as humans rather than as passport holders of a particular land.  And all at no cost, other than any donation we might choose to make.

Outside, the Millennium Bridge stretched across the Thames like a modern day yellow brick road connecting the Tate’s stolid bricks with the graceful dome and towers of St Paul’s Cathedral.

We headed over, somehow feeling that religion - or in my own language, spirituality - was an integral part of this voyage of discovery. Only to be greeted by an admission charge of £18 for adult entry to the Cathedral.

How very sad that a place which, I believe, says as much about human potential, skill and beauty as the British Museum, is as thought-provoking as the Tate Modern, and has the potential to be as expansive as the London skyline, chooses to put such a heavy price on access.

Poor connection

I am certain the Cathedral’s managers have well-honed arguments for making the charge, and that is their right.

But in the heart of a city which elected, in the wake of Terror attacks and the Brexit vote, to run a campaign stating boldly that #LondonIsOpen  it strikes me that our museums and galleries are doing far more to live that idea of connection and common humanity,  than the Cathedral - which may have forgotten its original inspiration was a human preaching brotherhood, inclusion, sharing. Or, in the words of the LondonIsOpen campaign:  ‘No them, only us’.

This week I encourage you to look with awe-struck eyes at something you have not really ‘seen’ before. 

And to pay attention to what connects you rather than divides you from everyone you know, everyone you meet, everyone you hear or read or think about.

Choose your own church - whether it’s a chapel,  museum, gallery or town centre cafe - at which to sit quietly and ponder all we have in common as citizens of planet Earth:  our emotions, our search for new experiences, our need to create beauty and legacies, our talent for invention, and our ability to recognise and respond to what is awesome, whether we are staring at the London skyline,  Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, Buddhist prayer flags against the Himalayan mountains, or Turkey’s Blue Mosque.

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