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From Mungo to the Muslims | By Ruth Gledhill
THE TIMES | ARTS SECTION | Wednesday, 31st March 1993

From Mungo to the Muslims

The opening of a museum of religious life and art on Saturday in Glasgow might tempt some to think that mammon has at last won the battle over God; that religion is history, a subject of curios and artefacts, to be pondered only on a rainy Saturday afternoon when Celtic are playing away.

It comes at a time when the city's original motto, "Lord, Let Glasgow flourish by the preaching of the word and praising thy name", has been reduced colloquially to the shorter, apparently Godless, "Let Glasgow flourish".

But far from consigning religion to further oblivion with the relics' antiquity, the £6 million St Mungo Museum suggests a city about to rediscover its religious heritage. The museum is a celebration of how Glasgow, once a predominantly Christian community, has in the last two centuries welcomed active, worshipping communities from almost all main religions.

In a new building next to Glasgow's medieval cathedral, St Mungo's grew out of faded plans to build a centre for cathedral visitors. It is named after Kentigern Mungo, the saint and bishop who founded Glasgow in AD 543 and made it a centre of mission.

When it became clear that the £1 million raised by the cathedral's Society of Friends was not enough to complete the new centre, Glasgow City Council stepped in with a rescue package. Funds from the council, the Scottish Tourist Board and the Glasgow Development Agency transformed the proposed centre into a museum.

Some exhibits have been taken from the city's other galleries. Eight in ten exhibits, including some from the city's Burrell collection, have not been seen before. Glasgow's religious communities were consulted and donated objects. Julian Spalding, the city's director of museums, says: "With their continued participation, we hope that the museum will in some way contribute to the creation of a society better able to celebrate and respect diversity of belief."

The museum fascinates at spiritual and temporal levels. It offers a whistle-stop tour of 450 exhibits from ancient and living religions and is complemented by a book, The St Mungo Museum, compiled with the help of Professor Ninian Smart.

Relics stemming from the worship of the Greek gods sit alongside exhibits of Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Sikhism and Taoism. For Judaism and Islam, where images of living creatures are discouraged, the museum has a "spice tower", used to mark the end of the Jewish Sabbath, and a 17th-century Islamic Turkish prayer rug. Glasgow has a thriving Jewish community, a result of flight from Czarist persecution in the 19thcentury and the Nazis in the 20th.

Christianity dominates. "This has been a Christian country for 1,000 years, so inevitably that has an effect," says Mark O'Neill, the city's senior curator of history.

Salvador Dalí's Christ of St John of the Cross, inspired by a sketch attributed to the mystic Carmelite friar St John of the Cross, painted in 1951 and bought by the city in 1952, has been moved to St Mungo's from the city's Art Gallery and Museum, Kelvingrove. This masterpiece, arguably the most famous religious work of the 20th century, is certain to be a top attraction, helping to bring in up to 500,000 visitors a year.

But the Dalí is counterbalanced by another modern work considered by some to be of equal stature, and one of the few new purchases for the museum. Ahmed Moustafa's Attributes of Divine Perfection combines the calligraphic and geometric tradition in Islamic art. "It is as powerful a statement about Islam as the Dalí is about Christianity," says O'Neill.

Wherever possible, attempts have been made to balance equally the world's main religions. Moving verbal testimonies from local communities have been recorded and are replayed in the museum. A Muslim girl speaks of arranged marriages: "My main concern is that my parents are happy. As long as my parents are happy I am happy. I trust them completely, absolutely, 100 per cent. Some people do not really understand arranged marriages but it really shows how much we trust our parents."

A Glasgow rabbi who survived the Nazi Holocaust has donated the prayer book he used in a concentration camp. A local Jewish woman speaks of a conference she attended on the Holocaust: "Someone said, 'Can't you forgive?' The answer was, 'Who are we to forgive? We did not die.'"

The museum is divided into three galleries; the first a religious art gallery and the third devoted to the religious history of the west of Scotland, a compelling story of conflict and triumph which has left an indelible stamp on the Scottish character. Alexander Johnstone's The Covenanters' Wedding (1842) shows a couple forced into a secret wedding after the Covenanters faced persecution for opposing royal interference with the Scottish prayer book.

A 19th-century Nigerian carved, spotted figure is a chilling reminder of how damage can be incorporated into belief when religions and cultures meet. The figure, from the Yoruba people, represents the spirit of smallpox, a disease feared as a cult spirit after it was brought to Africa by Europeans.

Such phenomena are often used to condemn colonialism and the missionary endeavours of that era, but the practices of isolated tribes not exposed to Western influence seem even more shocking to Western eyes. The museum's second gallery, on the "hatch, match and dispatch" role of religion in almost every culture, includes a Sande mask, from Sierra Leone in West Africa. The mask is worn during the initiation of girls into womanhood, which includes female circumcision.

With 420 employees, Glasgow has Britain's largest museums department. O'Neill, largely responsible for the idea for St Mungo's, says: "We were reviewing the history of Glasgow. One of the things that was most noticeably missing [from existing galleries and museums] was that Glasgow was a multi-cultural society. Religion seemed an interesting way of approaching the problem. Our aim is to promote mutual respect and understanding of different religions. We are trying to get rid of prejudice, on the grounds that it is mostly based on ignorance."

St Mungo Museum (041-553 2557) opens on Saturday. Normal hours: Mon-Sat 10am-5pm; Sun 1 11am-5pm

Ruth Gledhill on Glasgow's newest museum, celebrating the city's religious diversity


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