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World Humanist Congress: Encounters in a museum and reflections on BC versus BCE

By Susan Guiver

Susan is Secretary of Milton Keynes Humanists and a retired English teacher. In this article, she reports on whether museums are gradually changing their Christian framing from BC/AD to the secular alternative BCE/CE.

In Copenhagen for the recent World Humanist Congress, the humanist contingent from Milton Keynes took the opportunity to explore the city, including a visit to the National Museum on Ny Vestergade. We particularly wanted to see the reconstruction of a Viking ship, which was remarkable, and much bigger than I had realised: up to 100 men and their animals sailed on these larger vessels, mainly on an open deck!

Heathens and pagans

There was also an interesting section on earlier Danish history from the Stone Age to the Iron Age, or ‘up to the end of the heathen period’. It was that adjective ‘heathen’ which caught my eye. An archaeologist friend here tells me that there is a shift away from such value-laden terms as ‘heathen’ or ‘pagan’. The exhibitions were on a timeline that stretched from BC through to AD. The use of BC-AD combined with that suggestive word, ‘heathen’, suggested an openly Christian framing of the past. We found a member of staff, on the door, and asked her if there was any debate in the museum, or indeed wider society, about moving to the more secular terms of BCE and CE. Speaking English, like everyone else we encountered, she was interested but had not encountered this question before. The Danes take their Christian framework for granted, she told us, even though Denmark is a modern secular democracy in many ways. However, we learned from Danish humanists, your taxes in Denmark do support the state church – unless you specifically opt out.

That day in Copenhagen, I had confidently assumed British museums were moving towards a more secular terminology. However, when I checked the website of the British Museum in London, I discovered that it too still uses BC and AD terminology. Egyptian artefacts in the Roxie Walker Galleries date from “about 2686 BC–AD 395”, for example. The National Museum of Scotland is the same. Its “Ancient Egyptian collection … comes from Abydos and dates from the Middle Kingdom, 11th-13th Dynasty, c.2010-1660 BC.”

‘Before Christ’ and ‘Anno Domini’

Intrigued, I wondered about the terms BC and AD. How long has the term AD, ‘Anno Domini’ been around? I found this information on the website of the Buxton Museum in Derbyshire: “This idea to count the years from Jesus’ birth was proposed in the year 525 by Dionysius Exiguus, a Christian monk, later becoming standardised in Julian and Gregorian calendars. This means that the terms AD and BC have no biblical authority, entering popular use due to the roles of religious houses in the writings and copying of manuscripts, which themselves tended be religious.” So, we see the church control of knowledge in those times in action here.

What about BCE? From Wikipedia, I learned that Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), the great astronomer and mathematician, had used the expression annus aerae nostrae vulgaris (year of our common era), in a publication of 1615. Since Kepler was a Lutheran, this is presumably not an anti-Christian phrase, though it may also imply his profound respect for science. Then, the term ‘Common Era’ occurs in English as early as 1708. Not surprisingly, it is also a term used by Jewish religious scholars. Since the later 20th century, BCE and CE have become popular in academic and scientific publications as religiously neutral terms.

So, are British museums changing from BC to BCE? There is some evidence of change. For example, the museum in Buxton in Derbyshire uses the more secular terminology. And, in 2002, an advisory panel for the Religious Studies syllabus for England and Wales recommended introducing BCE/CE into schools. So perhaps our museums will catch up soon! We suggested to our Danish humanist hosts that they could create a little sticker with an ‘E’ – and the humanist logo – to add to the BC dates in their national museum, as a gentle protest! And perhaps I should be doing the same in London…

Thumbnail image is of the National Museum in Copenhagen

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