Aga Khan Museum en Toronto

sep 22, 2014

This week I attended one of the many opening ceremonies of the Aga Khan Museum.  After 18 years, the dream of an Islamic centre for art and community has become a reality – not, as originally intended, in London, England, but in Toronto.  A triumph indeed.  Much has been written recently about the building’s architecture, and about the Aga Khan’s hopes for the museum, gardens, and attached Ismaili Centre, aAKM165_Court of Keyomarss a centre for cultural diplomacy.  An adapted précis of the Aga Khan’s speech was published in the Globe and Mail, and most reviews have been glowing.

Yesterday’s opening was for museum workers and academics.  The museum’s staff looked a tiny bit stressed and worn after all of the activity from the week before, but they were still bravely chatting up the guests and certainly made everyone feel welcomed.

The building itself, and its surrounding gardens, are magnificent and look exactly as they did in the artists renderings that were published before they were built.  Fumihiko Maki of Japan and Charles Correa from India designed the building, together with Toronto’s Moriyama & Teshima Architects. The surrounding 10 acres of public gardens were created by Lebanese landscape architect Vladimir Djurovic as a contemporary take on Persian Islamic gardens.  The 17 acre site also includes the Ismaili Centre, which is a community and cultural centre for the Islamic community of Toronto.

From the outside, the museum looks a little bit like a sultan’s hat, or perhaps a crown, combined with a modern mosque.  Inside, the museum building feels both cool and warm, perhaps an effect of the white stone walls and gray slate floors – the central courtyard, decorated with a lacy mashrabiya pattern of an eight-pointed star, lets light into the main space, and creates a feeling of elegance.

As connoisseurs of museum buildings, and their more functional aspects, the guests remarked upon the lovely bathrooms, the spacious auditorium, and the quietly efficient elevators.  We were not admitted to the curatorial wing, but if the emphasis on elegant functionality continues into that space, the staff who work here are very fortunate.

During his short speech, Director Henry Kim mentioned that the auditorium and the other spaces in the museum lent themselves to many functions other than simply as museum spaces.  Certainly, the multi-use areas are useful, but part of the raison d’etre of a museum is contemplation, and that should not be dismissed.

Perhaps the Bellerive room, which features the ceramics collection of the late Aga Khan and Princess Catherine, is intended to be one such contemplative space.  Although it is probably intended as a before-performance lounge for the auditorium, the room is an homage to the  “Persian Salon” in the Prince and Princess’ former residence in Geneva. Decorated with Persian rugs, textiles, and beautiful ceramics in rather old-fashioned cases, it is indeed a space for reflection.  One of my companions remarked that there is no information about the provenance or history of the contents of the cases, and perhaps that is deliberate.

During the morning of our visit, tours of the art and artifacts with the Education staff were conducted through the permanent gallery while other staff circulated among the guests.  Although there are only 1000 artifacts in the museum’s collection (all from the Aga Khan’s personal collection) each one is a gem, an exquisite example of that particular type of artifact.  Some are also very rare, such as a 10th century medical manuscript by Ibn Sinna (Avicenna, a Persian polymath and medical doctor).  Other artifacts are enlivened by their unconventional mounts, such as a brocaded silk riding tunic on display in a case by itself.

Khan_LandscapeThe two upper galleries are intended for temporary exhibits.  Currently, an exhibit in the first gallery, In Search of the Artist: Signed Drawings and Paintings from the Aga Khan Museum Collection, displays Mughal court paintings from the 15th to the 17th centuries (watercolour works on paper) – tracing the genealogy of the master painters from the courts of the Mughal emperors of Persia and India.  Many painters traveled between courts or moved from court to court over a lifetime, and masters trained apprentices in court ateliers.  Associate Curator Dr. Filiz Çakır Phillip introduced us to the exhibit and then left us to enjoy the sumptuous paintings.  How wonderful it must be to work with such treasures, and to be able to trace the links between families of painters over time.

The second exhibit is an exhibit of contemporary art from Pakistan, entitled The Garden of Ideas.  According to the website, the exhibit is “the work of six internationally acclaimed Pakistani artists whose creations play with, question, and interrogate the timeless theme of the garden. Several pieces have been made in direct response to works in the Aga Khan Museum’s collection and to the Museum’s own reinterpretation of an Islamic garden (the chahar bagh) as designed by Vladimir Djurovic.”  The works are indeed playful, and clearly lovingly curated, although the gallery leaves too much space between the works at the beginning, and not enough space between the works on the wall.  But this is a minor quibble.  David Chalmers Alesworth’s rugs, in particular, evoke colonial town planning – from all points of the former British Empire.

The Aga Khan Museum, like the Bata Shoe Museum and the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art, began as the personal collection of a very rich person with wonderful taste.  From its very beginning, however, this museum seems to embrace sharing its riches with the Toronto community as a whole.  Transforming an urban wasteland in Don Mills, the new gardens and building feel warm, hospitable and openhearted.  We look forward to visiting again soon.

*Elka Weinstein, colaboradora del Master en Museos (22 de septiembre de 2014).