Museum unites world religions to explore the meaning of life

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The Independent Online
'WE MIGHT have to fix that. I think John Knox is marginally higher up than St Patrick.' This was one of the final worries of staff putting the finishing touches to a new pounds 6m museum of religious life and art which opens in Glasgow today. The city is claiming the new museum to be the world's first based solely on humanity's struggle to find a meaning for life.

The exhibition includes a statue of St Patrick against a background of Celtic football supporters, the reformer John Knox above an Orange Lodge drum, a 19th-century Nigerian Benin bronze head above a commemoration plate from the Pope's 1982 visit to Glasgow; throw in a bronze Shiva Natataraja, a snake demon mask, Barmitzvah gifts, the Billy Graham song book and the spectacular sight of Salvador Dali's masterpiece, Christ of St John of the Cross, and it all indicates an eclectic collection that will, given religious prejudices, delight as many as it offends.

Sometimes described as Britain's second city of sectarianism, after Belfast, where religion seems only to depend on the colour of a football scarf, Glasgow has also to thank other religious groups for helping to mould the city's international culture. The new St Mungo Museum, according to the Glasgow Museums director Julian Spalding, demonstrates the 'multi-faith city Glasgow has been for 200 years'.

Representing Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, and the beliefs of ancient and tribal worlds, was never going to be easy. The museum's senior curator, Mark O'Neill, was involved when the project first started two years ago. 'It's been a fascinating and frightening two years,' he said.

As his team faces opening day criticism, there is at least comfort in the advanced defence they have prepared. 'We'll correct errors of fact, unintended bias or representation. But to other criticism there will be no response for a full year.'

He expects, as an example, that the non-Christians will complain about the extensive use of stained glass. 'That was pragmatic. We've simply a lot of stained glass in our collections.' Glass from the Burrell Collection has been transferred to the St Mungo, as have other objects from the city's museums. Glasgow's numerous religious groups have been consulted and contributed. But opening day will nevertheless brings surprises.

To address the non-Christian imbalance, pounds 100,000 was allocated for special purchases which include a bronze 18th century Shiva and a beautiful Islamic art display depicting the 99 names of God (a 17th-century prayer rug faces Mecca).

The problem of representing religions which forbid representation of God is cleverly got round. The art objects, though the most spectacular, do not dominate. Instead, the museum's charm lies in how it displays small everyday objects that influence belief and behaviour - a Nintendo game of Kid Icarus, describing myths and monsters, a plastic statue of the Virgin Mary from Lourdes alongside a carved Nigerian smallpox spirit figure from the last century.

Already some Scottish churches have voiced quiet unease, but most have been content to wait and see. Others have been more direct. The Rev Donald Maclean, of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland in Glasgow (the church which suspended the Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay, for attending a Roman Catholic funeral service) said his church was not asked to contribute to the collection. 'But even if we had, we would not have done so. This is all part of the multi-faith movement. But as we consider Christianity to be the unique religion, we are against it.'

However, contrary to some reports, Mr Maclean said he had not banned his congregation from visiting the museum, which could be its first real success.

And the denomination of the senior curator? 'I was brought up a Catholic, but I don't have a faith,' Mr O'Neill said. His main hope for the St Mungo, named after the Christian saint who founded Glasgow in AD 543, is that it will contribute to greater mutual understanding and respect.

(Photograph omitted)