The Aga Khan Museum: Islamic art and culture in Toronto
Par Ines Zebdi
Publié le 12/03/2015 • modifié le 16/11/2020 • Durée de lecture : 4 minutes
The Aga Khan Museum, a remarkable architectural feat, is a new museum, which opened in September 2014 in Toronto, Canada. This recent initiative by the Aga Khan Development Network sheds light on the contributions of the ancient Islamic culture to arts and sciences, an important symbol in one of the most multicultural cities in the world.
According to initial plans, the Museum was supposed to be located in London, but Toronto appeared more appropriate in particular because the Ismailis are well established in the city. The site, which is a few kilometres away from the city centre, is divided into two buildings, the museum on one side and the new Ismaili community center and prayer hall on the other side. The Museum and the Ismaili center were designed by architects who found their inspiration in the Islamic tradition, the Japanese Fumihiko Maki, who won the Pritzker Prize, the Indian Charles Correa, and Toronto’s Moriyama and Teshima Architects. The Lebanese landscape architect Vladimir Djurovic designed the surrounding gardens after the models of the Isfahan Square and Persian gardens. The inside courtyard is square shaped, with one room at each corner and a patio in the middle, a traditional Islamic layout. The patio is surrounded by glass panels and screens, which reflect and modulate the sunlight.
The Aga Khan, currently Prince Karim Aga Khan IV, is the spiritual leader of the Ismaili community, which has 15 million members in the world. Ismailism is a branch of Shi’a Islam, which emerged during the Second century of Hegira (8th century), after the death of the sixth Shi’a imām following a succession battle between his two sons Ismā‘īl and Mūsā al-Kāṣim. The Ismaili branch of Shiism was then created and within this community, the so-called Nazari branch developed as a Shi’a community in Persia. Their influence then expanded to Iran, Syria and India. They have had an uninterrupted succession of Imams until Prince Karim Al-Husayni who carries today the title of Aga Khan IV. This honorary title was built after the Turkish military title agha and the Turko-mongol title khan. It was first given to the Nazari imām Hasan Ali Shah by the Shah of Persia Fat’h Ali Shah Qajar in 1818.
Prince Karim Aga Khan IV has founded around 60 organisations, of which 30 charities. The Toronto Museum is the only one in North America to be entirely devoted to Islamic art and culture. It possesses more than one thousand works of art - illustrations, ceramics, scientific instruments, paintings and Qur’an books - and its ambition is to answer the following question: what is Islamic Culture? The Muslim world today stretches from Africa to Indonesia, from the Middle East to India and China, and has evolved and changed during history. This is the reason why the Museum’s aim is to show this culture through various perspectives: music, cinema, food, dance… For example, numerous concerts, projections and conferences are organised in the Aga Khan Museum, which also houses a library, an auditorium and a research centre.
The collection is displayed on two floors, the artefacts are organized country by country, and according to a chronological order, which follows the spread of Islam after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 CE. Originally located in the Arabic Peninsula in the early seventh century, Islam then reached a large territory and expanded from the Iberian Peninsula in Europe to central regions of Asia. Today, Muslims account for almost a quarter of the world’s population. Museum exhibitions rely a lot on interactive materials to facilitate public understanding, such as a moving map showing the evolution of Islam in the world since 632 CE, or I-Pads enabling visitors to look very precisely into details of exhibited illuminations. The collection is incredibly rich and the Museum owns artefacts coming from all regions of the Muslim world. For example, there is a considerable number of Qur’an books coming from different countries and different periods. The number of illuminations in the Museum’s collection of Qur’an books, with coloured inks and gold, shows the diversity and the richness of Islamic art. The scripts and illuminations are different according to where the various Qur’an books come from, reflecting specific aesthetic and cultural traditions. The collection also includes important scientific elements such as The Canon of Medicine (Volume 5), which forms the basis of the medical Sciences and was framed in Iran during the 11th century, an inked and coloured Iraqi paper from the 13th century representing the structure of a leaf, coming from the book Khawass Al-Ashjar (The characteristics of Trees), or a Spanish astrolabe from the 14th century with writings in Arabic, Hebrew and Latin. A manuscript in Arabic of the “Thousand and One Nights” dated 1235 coming the from the Muslim Spain can also be seen, as well as a copy of the five first sections of the Masnavi-e ma’anavi, a Persian book which is one of the most famous Sufi works, written by the poet Jalal ad-Din Rumi. The exhibition also shows archaeological pieces and objects coming from all over the Muslim World, like a 14th century Iranian beam from a mausoleum with verses of the Qur’an (2: 255) carved on it, or a 15th century jar coming from Syria, probably made to transport spices to a Western European client, which can be deducted by the European heraldry painted on it.
The Museum hosts a special room called “The Bellerive Room” dedicated to former Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, son of Aga Khan III and Prince Karim Aga Khan’s uncle. He was a United Nations diplomat and a well-known Islamic art collector. His widow Princess Catherine donated his collection to the Museum as a tribute to her husband, asking that the ceramics be exhibited as they had been in their living room at the Château de Bellerive, their residence in Switzerland.
Besides the general permanent collection, the Museum also organizes temporary thematic exhibitions. The next ones will be about India, one showing paintings of India by the British painter Howard Hodgkin, and the other dedicated to Mughal India.