Museums must be a home for all faiths - Museums Association

Museums must be a home for all faiths

The importance of Glasgow's St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art
Profile image for Rina Arya
Rina Arya

Cultural regeneration post-covid has brought into sharp perspective the value of the arts and culture. The unprecedented closures to museums necessitated thinking quickly and efficiently about how to address the immediate problems presented by lockdown. The access provided to collections through greater digitisation was a solution in many cases.

But reflections on closure involved more than the instigation of quick fixes and provided time to rethink agendas, collaboration and ways of working. Most museums have since opened their doors once again but some fared less well. St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art in Glasgow was under threat of permanent closure. The launch of a petition testified to the importance of this particular museum in cultural life, which is itself the focus of this commentary and can be addressed by thinking: what is significant and special about St Mungo? 

Factually, it is the only museum in the British Isles that is wholly dedicated to religion and art. There has been an increase of interest in religion in its various iterations within museums and this has generated discussions about the ontology of the religious object and its potentially fluid identities (as devotional, reverential, aesthetic, for example).  

More often than not, however, religion rarely has permanence in museums, and is still often subject to either only temporary exhibitions or aspects within a larger programme. The exclusive remit and focus of St Mungo makes it different. Opened in 1993, it aimed to express religion as it is lived, that is the way in which faith is practiced, and not simply religion from an historical, anthropological or educational perspective. 

And, specifically, it aimed to celebrate the religions active in Scotland, namely Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism and Sikhism. It involved the dynamic involvement of faith communities in the creation of the museum in the acquisition of works, display, and other important considerations. 

St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art in Glasgow

One of the unique aspects about St Mungo is what it lends to interfaith dialogue. It considers religion thematically, an approach that enables a comparative treatment. The structural layout of certain rooms in the museum prevent religions from being compartmentalised and creates a dialogue between different religions. So, while each object has its apportioned space for display, reflection and ritual-making, the proximity of the religious objects heightens the exchange between the objects.


This is much bolder than many longstanding museums of religions that safely partition religions according to historical era (or other categories). The viewer’s direct encounter with religious objects from different traditions generates discussion and sometimes dissension. The overturning of the Shiva Nataraja statue by an evangelical Christian with Bible in hand, was a case in point that shows the volatility that religion can give rise to and the very real challenges of a multicultural society. Incidents like this convey the charged meaning of religious objects, where they hold variously interpretations depending on the viewer and rejects any one religion’s premium on truth.

The discourse of interfaith dialogue needs to be innovated. It often takes the form of well managed discussions, held in neutral spaces, between religious leaders/spokespeople. Placing this discourse in a gallery setting, in front of religious symbols, in the interruption of sacred spaces of viewing packs a punch and foregrounds the significance of the museum in the civic understanding of religion in the 21st century. This is the contribution that St Mungo makes. 

The news that Glasgow City Council has committed to provide the funds necessary to reopen the museum is welcome because it means that its significance has been recognised and can once again extend its contribution to inter-faith debate and the enduring power of religion (and its objects) in the contemporary age. 

Rina Arya is a professor of visual culture and theory and acting head of art and communication at the School of Arts and Humanities, University of Huddersfield

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