Sunday, July 19, 2015

(No.291) "The Aga Khan Museum in Toronto"

"The Aga Khan and his new museum in Toronto: 

a new cultural asset for Ontario"

by Alastair Rickard

Prince Karim has been since 1957, when he was just 20, the 4th Aga Khan and the 49th Imam of Nizari Ismailism -- a denomination within Shia Islam. He is the hereditary spritual leader of the world's 20-30 million Ismaili Muslims who reside in various countries including Canada. His grandfather chose him as his successor thus skipping his son and Karim's father Prince Aly Khan.

The Aga Khan, now age 78, comes from a fascinating family. His father's first wife (and Karim's mother) was an English aristocrat. His stepmother ( but for only 4 years) was the American film star Rita Hayworth.

The 4th Aga Khan is divorced, carries a British passport but lives at Aiglemont (a large estate in northern France), controls billions of dollars in personal and Ismaili assets and seems to be as far from the sort of religiosity the public associates these days with Imams as it is possible to be.

There is a significant Ismaili community in Canada particularly Toronto. Over the years the Aga Khan developed a rather positive attitude to Canada. He was awarded honorary Canadian citizenship in 2004 and even addresssed this country's Parliament in 2014.

This favourable feeling for Canada doubtless helped prompt him to pick Canada as a place to build a museum. It is located on a 17 acre site on Wynford Drive in Toronto (near Eglinton and the Don Valley Parkway)  part of which was owned by Shell and part formerly the headquarters of the Bata Shoe empire.

As an initiative of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture he established an Ismaili religious/community centre and adjacent to it a museum of Islamic arts and culture: the Aga Khan Museum. Both are enhanced by being surrounded and complemented by the Aga Khan Park. The Museum opened in September of 2014 .

The architecture of both the Museum designed by the Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki and the Ismaili Centre (by Indian architect Charles Correa) is what I characterize as starkly modern and hence suitably trendy and fashionable for the second decade of the 21st century.

The surrounding park, open dawn to dusk, is also 'ultra modern' in appearance, meant to be a 21st century interpretation of a garden from Muslim civilizations. Designed by Lebanese landscape architect Vladimir Djurovic the Park's most striking feature is the five large reflecting pools with rows of serviceberry trees.

The interior of the Museum is impressive. The ground floor features theater space, an interior courtyard atrium, an adjacent cafe and the Diwan -- a restaurant featuring food inspired by the Middle East, North Africa and India.

The principal feature is a large L-shaped gallery in which are displayed items from the Museums' 1000 piece collection covering Muslim civilization from the 8th century to the modern day.The artifacts featured include musical and scientific instruments, pottery and metal work, paintings and carpets. It is a strikingly effective gallery.

The temporary special exhibitions the Museum hosts use gallery space on the second floor. Currently and until Oct. 18, 2015 there is an exhibition drawing mainly from works held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York: "A Thirst For Richness in Capets from the East and Paintings from the West".

It pairs mid-17th century Dutch paintings which include eastern carpets in the paintings with actual carpets produced in the Near and Far East during the same period. Different areas of origin for the carpets featured different colours and designs. It is not a large exhibition but it is an interesting one.

These days "unique" is a much over-used and misused adjective. The Aga Khan Museum and Park qualifies, in a Canadian context, for that word's appropriate use.

For details of the Aga Khan Museum and the special exhibtion, go to:




previous columns & blog archive:
to access pevious columns and this blog's archive, the links to which
are listed chronologically in the margin beside each column
as it appears on the website, go to
a recent column and use the links

to set a "Google Alert" for RickardsRead columns
in order to receive notice automatically of new columns
as they are posted to, go to