At a time when respect for other cultures has never been more important, Canada is fortunate to have an important new world-class cultural institution, the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto.
The 113,000-sq-ft museum was designed by Pritzker Architecture Prize winner Fumihiko Maki of Japan and was established by the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN). Active in 30 countries, the AKDN is one of the largest private development networks in the world. The museum opened in September.
The Aga Khan is the spiritual leader of the world’s Ismaili Muslims, and the AKDN is dedicated to improving living conditions and opportunities for people in some of the poorest parts of the world, regardless of faith or gender.
The museum was furnished with the Aga Khan family’s collection of Islamic art, one of the leading private collections of its kind.
“The works of art that you find in the Aga Khan Museum really do span all of the art in the Islamic world – 1,400 years ago until the present day,” says Henry Kim, Director and CEO of the Aga Khan Museum. “We showcase the Islamic art world not only through the art work, but also through performances, music, dance, film, poetry, and literature.”
Mr. Kim, a Harvard and Oxford-educated historian who led special projects at the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, was appointed Director and CEO of Aga Khan Museum prior to its construction and oversees its cultural mandate today. Mr. Kim was in Vancouver last week to introduce the museum to a boardroom of influential community and mining industry leaders – including Hunter Dickinson founder Bob Dickinson, Sprott USA Chairman Rick Rule, and event host Pan American Silver Chairman Ross Beaty.
“For me, it’s not a Muslim museum or an Ismaili museum,” Mr. Kim explained. “To me, it is an art museum, and our objective is to show how cultures come together.”
“The museum hopes to change people’s perceptions, to foster a better sense of civil society, and help people understand pluralism,” Mr. Kim said. “Pluralism comes down to respecting other cultures. Not just being tolerant, but actually respecting various cultures and points of view. Living alongside people with mutual respect.”
Mr. Kim believes the Aga Khan Museum’s collections, exhibitions and performances show how points of contact among cultures historically have enriched world culture. He is optimistic the museum can teach non-Muslims about the substance behind Muslim people. “Art gives another perspective of Islamic culture than is often reflected in media.”
The Aga Khan Museum is one of only a handful of museums in the world dedicated to Islamic art and the first in North America. Western museums have long celebrated western and Far Eastern art, but Kim believes Islamic art deserves equal cultural celebration. He’s excited to show the collection to the nearly 100 million people within an hour’s flight of Toronto, especially students.
The AKDN’s culture program focuses on the physical, social, cultural and economic revitalization of communities in the developing world, but some of its programs, including the Museum, span both the developed and developing worlds. The AKDN also has commercial enterprises that are directed to improving lives over just bottomline profitability. Profits from commercial enterprises are reinvested in further development in the fields of health, education, architecture, rural development and promotion of the private sector.
During the lunch presentation, I learn that natural resources entrepreneur Lukas Lundin pledged a substantial sum a week earlier for Aga Khan University’s principal campus in Arusha, and he has previously supported the training of rural nurses in Kenya. Mr. Beaty is working with AKDN to defend entities without a voice to speak for themselves, namely wildlife and the environment. The private development agency is one of the most powerful forces for good in the world, Mr. Beaty says.
Canada is lucky to welcome this new cultural institution, and a new way of finding common ground among its many rich cultural traditions. We should all look forward to visiting the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, and find other ways to support the AKDN.
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Special thanks to Anish Sunderji for the generous invitation and Ross Beaty for hosting.
For more information, please visit www.AgaKhanMuseum.org.