New Scot exhibit draws attention to refugees in Glasgow

10 April 2019

Video: Margaret Banford

Since opening last June, the New Scot Exhibit has become an established fixture of St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art. The exhibit is on the top floor of the museum, and was created by the refugees who have come to call Scotland and Glasgow their home. It has a distinct focus on religion and faith, and highlights items and stories which have meaning to these refugees.

From the beginning, the museum wanted to get people thinking about refugees and how they fit into our society. This is the reason the exhibit is where it is – to challenge the perceptions that there are some people who aren’t Scottish, and some who are. Lynnda Wardle, project manager at the Weekend Club, said: “Refugees were asked to to select objects and add objects to be included in the exhibition. In this way,  refugees and asylum seekers could begin to see their own cultures and stories represented in the civic spaces in the city – a crucial aspect of feeling welcome and settled in their new home.”

The New Scot exhibit is the product of a year-long collaboration between St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art and participating refugees, with some input from various organisations such as Interfaith Glasgow and the Weekend Club.

Harry Dunlop, creator of the exhibition, said: “It was about people, and the meanings and the different layers of meanings that people bring to objects. So the response from the public has been very very positive.”

In its focus on refugees, the exhibit has representations of people and items from Kosovo, Syria, Algeria and beyond. The museum sought to include pieces chosen by new Glaswegians, as well as by people who have lived in Glasgow for some time.

Wardle said: “The Weekend Club was asked to participate in a consultation session with museum staff exploring notions of home and identity. The participants were asked to look at objects, select objects and discuss and share their stories.”

The exhibit itself is made up of objects which were donated or chosen by the refugees themselves. It contains musical instruments, tables, and even a photograph of work by Glasgow artist Ken Currie. The original work Peace is in the museum’s collection, but is too large to appear on the same floor as the rest of the display.

Where the labels on this exhibit differ from those in other museums is that they contain personal information. This exposition ultimately allows refugees to present themselves in new ways, and for people to see them in new contexts.

The method used in the creation of this exhibit is quite unusual in that Dunlop took a back seat when it came to choosing items to be displayed. He wanted the refugees and asylum seekers themselves to choose what held meaning for them. The end result includes input from two-year old toddlers, right up to “Dauwid and Joseph, who were maybe in their late 50s, early 60s.” Initially, the people involved wanted Dunlop to choose the items for display, but he said: “From the very beginning the idea was that I wouldn’t curate. I wouldn’t do the traditional curating thing and just choose objects and write things about other people. I would instead invite a group of people to come together to explore the issues and to choose objects from the museum collection.”

The New Scots – a term used in the Scottish government report on refugees and asylum seekers – was conceived during Refugee Week Scotland, as a means of showing how people came to settle in Glasgow. The exhibit includes both objects from their own religious lives, and a short video featuring several of the refugees themselves. This video explains their own connections to the items on display, and how they are important in cultural and religious terms. Dunlop gave people access to St Mungo’s own collections, but “also had a few donations from people who gave some things from their own culture as well which was very special for us so they’ve been now part of Glasgow museum’s collection.”

The exhibit is a welcome addition to the overall museum collection, as it serves two purposes. As Dunlop said: “Pre and post-Brexit rhetoric was such that there was a whole load of people in Glasgow being looked at, such as people who’ve come here as refugees seeking sanctuary in Glasgow, and I wanted to do something that reflected what was happening in the city..” The exhibit expands the Scottish gallery in a new way, while also showing museum patrons the face of various religions through the people who practise them.

The exhibit is important beyond the walls of the museum too, given our current political focus on the realities of the refugee crisis across Europe. The exhibit shows people that refugees are themselves part of the community they settle in.

St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art and its special exhibits are free for everyone to visit.

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