St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art reopens

By Mark O’Neill

‘In terms of interpreting and inspiring society afresh, the St Mungo Museum is probably the most important museum to have been opened in Britain since the V & A’.

This glowing accolade was the conclusion of a review in the Spectator by Alexandra Artley when the St Mungo Museum of Life and Art opened in 1993. Its reopening this weekend after two years of closure was therefore greeted with great relief. Closed originally due to COVID, permanent closure was discussed as an option as the City Council struggled to deal the financial impact, first of the pandemic and then of the cost-of-living crisis. A vigorous campaign by Interfaith Glasgow helped secure its future. Phillip Mendelsohn, Interfaith Glasgow’s Chairperson said:

“Interfaith Glasgow is delighted that St. Mungo’s Museum is reopening, as it’s such an important resource to the faith communities of Glasgow and the wider community. As a city with many refugees and asylum seekers, sharing the story of the many faiths in the City is important in building community cohesion. The importance of St Mungo’s extends far beyond the City as it is one of the few museums of comparative religion in the world and is unique in the UK. We look forward to renewing our partnership working with the wonderful team at the museum and, especially, to being able to deliver our ever-popular ‘Faith to Faith’ events in person again.”

The reopening of St Mungo’s means that plans can now begin to celebrate its 30th anniversary in April 2023 – and the huge growth in interfaith work in that time.

The costs of reopening are being met from a £25 million local infrastructure fund which also includes plans to tackle potholes, repairs and road improvements; extra staff to carry out neighbourhood deep cleans, and cash for those facing fuel poverty. The presence of a museum, especially one dedicated to world religions in a list of very material benefits, says a lot about the complexity of the role of local government and the dimensions of human life it must consider. It is not surprising that evaluating the impact of its work is so difficult!

Naming an interfaith museum after a Christian saint may seem strange, but every schoolchild in the city learns that St Mungo founded Glasgow in the 6th century. In the original discussions (somewhat basic in those early days of consultation practice) in 1992, the various faith groups agreed that having a distinctive local name, which linked the city’s foundation with religion, was preferable to a bland title like Glasgow Museum of World Religions. As well as being unusual in its subject matter (museums are – still – often wary of religion) St Mungo’s is also unusual in stating its purpose in the foyer. The plaque says that the museum ‘aims to promote mutual understanding and respect among people of all faiths and none’.

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