Story by Lynn Burshtein
TORONTO, ONTARIO — The Aga Khan Museum, North America’s first museum dedicated to Islamic arts and culture, opened to great fanfare on September 12 and I couldn’t wait to peek inside.
After all, this is a project that was almost two decades in the making. Funded by the religious leader of the Shia Ismaili Muslim community, Prince Karim Aga Khan IV, and his organization, the Aga Khan Development Network, the Aga Khan Museum aims to promote cultural pluralism and foster an in-depth awareness of Muslim heritage, as well as its secular and religious traditions. As someone who had only ever visited museums of the Western world, I had little idea what would comprise the collection of artifacts. And with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau and the 77-year-old Aga Khan in attendance at the opening ceremony I was also curious to see whether it lived up to the sizeable buzz the facility generated.
Shortly after the ribbon-cutting ceremony, I had the chance to see what treasures this unique building overlooking the Don Valley Parkway offers. Given the DVP is known more for its traffic jams and big-box retailers than a cosmopolitan hub, I also wondered if the museum would be enticing enough to lure cultural connoisseurs from their usual downtown Toronto stomping grounds.
Innovative Design at Islamic Museum
The building, a $300-million, 10,000-square-foot structural marvel situated on almost seven hectares, did not disappoint. Even before entering, I was enthralled with the cutting-edge exterior. The building boasts a futuristic, all-white façade designed by award-winning architect Fumihiko Maki of Japan and is set on equally impressive gardens (designed by landscape architect Vladimir Djurovic) where geometric black stone reflecting ponds are strategically placed in between the museum and the adjacent Ismaili Centre (the latter is designed by famed Indian architect Charles Correa). Indeed, there was more than one person trying to angle their camera phone in a way that would capture in one shot the building’s unique design, as well as the glorious gardens surrounding it.
Inside, the building is a sensory delight, with every structural detail thematically on point. The interior features traditional Islamic patterned glass that, when combined with the strategically placed skylights, result in roving sun and shade designs on the walls. (I recommend allowing a few minutes to experience this feature.)
The downstairs exhibition gallery is devoted to the permanent collection housing approximately 250 artifacts on display, while the upstairs galleries are home to the temporary displays including the current exhibition, “The Garden of Ideas” (scheduled to run until January 2015). Inspired works by internationally acclaimed Pakistani artists are among the exhibition’s highlights.
The curated collection of greater than 1,000 artifacts that date to the eighth century is vast, varied and very impressive. Works include fine ceramics (such as a splendid decorative floral dish from Turkey that would become the visual brand for the Ottoman Empire, from 1299-1923), jewels, pendants, medical texts (“Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine”), musical instruments (including an extraordinary ivory horn), paintings, rugs and a shimmery robe tunic/robe from the 13th century, all span a geographical area stretching from Spain to West Africa to China. Samples of Koran manuscripts and other texts on parchment and paper and even calligraphy painstakingly etched on a preserved chestnut leaf are also on display. Even without knowing the meaning of these texts I was able to appreciate their significance.
Learn About Islamic Art at Aga Khan Museum
While on the main floor you will notice the stunning Aisha Khalid tapestry titled, “Your Way Begins on the Other Side.” This oversized piece is comprised of more than one million gold-plated and stainless steel pins arranged on velvet and silk. Photographs of this tapestry simply cannot do it justice — it has to be seen in person and up close to witness the complexity of the handiwork involved.
But the museum isn’t only about artifacts and artwork. Beyond the permanent and revolving collections, there are also spaces indoors for public engagement, continuing education and social gatherings. The dome-shaped auditorium that does not contain a bad seat in the house will host musical performances, public lectures and film screenings co-presented with the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival. There is also a restaurant on-site, Diwan, dedicated to Indian, North African, Central Asian and Turkish cuisines. While I didn’t have a chance to stop at the restaurant, the description of the menu is reason enough for me to want to come back.
All in all, I believe the museum is a timely testament to the Aga Khan’s commitment to cultural diversity, and will serve to educate and provide greater access to Islamic societies. With everything that it has to offer, I believe it will appeal to locals and tourists alike, despite not being in downtown Toronto.
And why is it in Toronto in the first place, you may ask? Sure, the city’s reputation as one that fosters cultural inclusiveness is one of the main reasons. As His Highness Aga Khan himself stated, “Canada has for many years been a beacon to the rest of the world for its commitment to pluralism and its support for the multicultural richness and diversity of its peoples.”
More About The Aga Khan Museum
Address: 77 Wynford Drive, Toronto, ON
Museum Hours: Open Tuesday to Sunday 10 am to 6 pm, except Thursdays (10 am to 8 pm)
Senior (65+): $15
Student (ID: 15-25): $15
Child (3-14): $15