GLASGOW City Council’s cultural arm has been accused of politicising ancient exhibits at a flagship museum by linking them to the contemporary debate around transgender rights.

Two porcelain figures of the Buddhist goddess of mercy which are at least 300 years old have been put on display at the revamped Burrell Collection described as “Guanyin: A Transgender Icon” our sister title The Herald reports.

The deity is also labelled as “gender fluid” as it was depicted through history first as male and later as female, even though this was a slow cultural shift that took place over centuries.

A card accompanying the exhibits reads: “Trans rights are human rights. Be more Guanyin.”

The feminist campaign group For Women Scotland said the exhibit was disrespectful as it misrepresented Buddhist art in order to make "a heavy-handed political point”.

The Burrell is run by Glasgow Life, the charitable cultural arm of the SNP-run local authority.

The row comes as SNP and Green ministers are putting controversial legislation through Holyrood to reform gender recognition laws.

The aim is to simplify how people get legal recognition of their acquired gender by using self-declaration instead of a medical diagnosis.

Glasgow Times:

The changes also speed up the process from two years to six months, and reduce the age for a gender recognition certificate from 18 to 16.

First unveiled in 1983, the A-listed Burrell Collection in Pollok Park reopened a fortnight ago after a six-year, £68milion refurbishment.

It houses the cream of the 8,000-piece personal art collection of the shipping magnate Sir William Burrell and his wife Lady Constance Burrell, which was left to the city in 1944. 

Glasgow Life says it includes “one of the most significant collections of Chinese Art in Europe”, and it is to this that the Guanyin figures belong.

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The introductory label to the cased exhibits reads: “Guanyin: A Transgender Icon. 

“Starting in the 900s Buddhists in China transformed the male god Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara into the female goddess of compassion, Guanyin. Some trans people feel this gender-fluid figure reflects their life experiences.”

Next to it, the label for the first of the two figures says: “Figure of Guanyin. 1662-1772. Trans people have always existed and are rooted in history. Figures like Guanyin reflect this, showing that gender and identity are not always fixed.”

The label for the second, which also dates from the Qing Dynasty, adds: “Guanyin has always represented the basic human values of compassion and kindness. Trans people deserve respect and understanding. Trans rights are human rights. Be more Guanyin.”

Guanyin is often portrayed as having 1000 arms and 1000 eyes, but this is not mentioned. 

Susan Smith of the For Women Scotland group said the Burrell exhibits had been wrongly “politicised”.

Glasgow Times:

She said: “This seems like a deliberate intervention in a current debate by a publicly owned collection. 

“This is all the worse as it is culturally disrespectful: Buddhist art and culture is being appropriated to make this heavy-handed political point. 

"This is even more concerning as the labelling generally seems targeted at a young audience. We would like to know who Glasgow Life consulted with and why they are misrepresenting exhibits”.

Glasgow Life’s own Glasgow Museums website states that Guanyin’s gender change - unlike that of a transgender person - was the result of an evolution in how they were depicted in religious art which took place over hundreds of years.

In an entry for a different Guanyin figure it states: “Originally in the 12th century, Guanyin was depicted as a male deity, and through time particularly during the Yuan dynasty (14th century) the figure transformed into a young female figure and assumed a role quite similar to that of Mother Mary in the Western tradition.”

Glasgow Life said: “Analysis of changes to the depiction of Guanyin as a male deity in the 12th century to female during the Yuan dynasty (14th century) has been the subject of academic study for some years. 

“Many of these studies referenced Guanyin’s status as an icon for some transgender people years before The Burrell Collection reopened to the public. 

“Given this fascinating history we consulted trans and non-binary people from charity organisations and community groups as part of The Burrell Collection refurbishment who regard this transitioning as similar to some of their experiences. 

“One of the aims of the refurbishment of The Burrell Collection was to work with community groups to reflect often previously under-represented histories as part of the re-display, including LGBT histories because Glasgow Life Museums are places for everyone.”