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Religious Emblems Find Unusual Niche

A new museum in Glasgow aims to reflect the significance of religion in human life - and finds mixed reactions

RELIGIOUS life and art. It is, perhaps, hardly the most expected theme to which a new museum might be devoted in the secular 1990s. Yet that is exactly what Glasgow opened in April. With about 90,000 visitors to date, the St. Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art is living up to the expectations of its organizers. It is a success.

It has also already been the focus of controversy: criticism for inaccuracies by the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland; a feminist protest about a photograph displayed in a section dealing with coming-of-age ceremonies of a young Egyptian woman undergoing a barbaric circumcision ritual; a protest from a Muslim man objecting to the sale of alcohol in the museum cafe; vandalism inflicted on a large bronze of the Hindu Shiva as Nataraja (Lord of the Dance); and objection by the Dav id Livingstone Centre to a caption they felt suggested the renowned missionary was a colonialist - it has since been altered.

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The aim of the museum is not, in fact, to cause offense. Its purpose, according to the city's Museums Director Julian Spalding, is "to reflect the central importance of religion in human life."

The museum is housed in a neo-medieval sandstone building of doubtful taste near Glasgow's fine (and genuinely Gothic) cathedral. The new building was designed as a visitor center for the cathedral, but funds ran out. The galleries it now contains divide into four functions: first, an art gallery showing objects connected with some of the world's religions; second, a gallery tracing the human life cycle as viewed and celebrated by various religions; third, a gallery giving a cursory glance at aspects of religion as it impinges on the lives of Scottish people. Fourth, a temporary exhibition gallery, at the moment displaying modern aboriginal art.

Judging from visitor comments, the museum seems to ruffle feathers however unprejudiced it claims to be. Some ask why atheism isn't represented. Others wonder why women are given short shrift, particularly as they are the ones who usually hand down religion to the next generation. Some feel Christianity is given too much attention.

The exhibits seem to have been selected and arranged not by religious historians so much as by sociologists and museum curators. Socially, religions are shown to inform the convictions, but also the superstitions, of vast numbers of people with regard not only to the invisible and moral powers of good and evil, but in matters of politics, sex, mythology, history, birth, death, burial, and after-life.

Each section in the gallery about religious life contains fascinating - and rather individualistic - quotations from ordinary individuals belonging to different religions - Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Jews, Christians, and Buddhists.

The museum's scope is rather generalized. Little more than brief mention is made of a few subdivisions of the world religions. The basic presentation of Christianity is conventionally Roman Catholic. In a general way, Protestantism's differences are presented - its objections to images, for instance. In a museum devoted largely to images it is inevitable that religions which make the most of imagery are going to be given the most attention.

IMAGES have their limitations when it comes to conveying invisible ideas. It seems likely that throughout the museum and for each religion, there may be a confusion between pictorial symbolism and the spiritual meanings such images hint at. Orthodox Christians of some denominations might, for instance, dispute the apparently unquestioning presentation of Jesus literally bursting out of the tomb to represent his resurrection or the depiction of hell as a real place in which sinful mortals are tortured for ever after death.

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Mr. Spalding, in the handbook, notes a central limitation of this experimental museum: it "is limited to those aspects of religion which can be represented by objects." To include Judaism and Islam, non-imagistic artifacts have been chosen - a Turkish prayer mat, for example, and written texts.

One thought-provoking result of the presentation of religions by means of objects and images, is the possibility of a fresh response to those objects in an unfamiliar context, neither temple nor art museum. Glasgow officials believe there is no museum in the world like this one. Certainly it isn't a place of worship. And it isn't only a collection of aesthetic artifacts. There are items shown which, by being in an art museum, would have lost their original religious function or significance. Here they s eem to regain some of their intention. And there are religious objects - some specially made - which would be appropriate and of undoubted meaning to believers in the religious setting, but which are so aesthetically substandard that they would never be displayed in a self-respecting art museum.

Another admitted limitation is that most objects shown belonged to other Glasgow museums. Availability dictated choice. This led to undoubted imbalances.

Nonetheless, if this museum, as Publicity Officer Vincent Taggart says, increases tolerance of others' beliefs, then it will make a useful contribution.

"The best we can hope for," as Taggart puts it, "is that people come and find less wrong than they thought might be."

Meanwhile, each time a visitor buys the museum booklet, an addendum slip is inserted. This corrects the misstatement on Page 55 identifying "the monarch as the head of the Church of Scotland." That was a blunder - in a new Scottish museum, no less - which caused a blush or two.

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