REVIEW: Aga Khan Museum is the cherry on Toronto’s multicultural cake

The Aga Khan museum in Don Mills opened last Thursday. (Fatima Kazmi)

The Aga Khan museum in Don Mills opened last Thursday. (Fatima Kazmi)

A new Toronto museum is offering visitors a chance to see aspects of Islam they may never have known existed.

The Aga Khan Museum opened its state-of-the-art facility in suburbain Don Mills to the public last Thursday. Flocks of adults, teens, and seniors whizzed through, but the ticket counter was never clear of visitors. Curious eyes implicitly asked, “What’s all the hype about?”

The hype is real — and rightfully so.

The project is funded by Prince Karim Aga Khan IV, the religious leader of the Shia Ismaili Muslim community, and his organization, the Aga Khan Development Network.

The museum is the first of its kind, displaying artifacts from Islamic civilizations over the centuries. As the first museum of Islamic art in all of North America, it acts as a pioneer of pluralism and tolerance.

It features a spectacular dome-shaped auditorium, two permanent galleries, a rotating gallery, an Ismaili religious centre, an indoor courtyard and an outdoor courtyard that mimics the Mughal-made Shalimar Gardens in Lahore.

Recent Ryerson radio and television arts graduate Amira Jiwani was the production secretary for the host broadcast team at the inaugural event of the museum. She took on the job for the experience it offered, and her increasing interest in the museum.

Jiwani recommends the museum to Ryerson students in particular because the university is “so focused on the arts.”

She says the site’s 6.8 hectares have a lot to offer: “It’s a museum for everyone,” and it makes Islamic art “accessible to everybody.”

The building is truly a visual marvel. Brazilian granite and aluminum make up the exterior. The interior materials include Italian sandstone, patterned glass, stone mosaic and Indonesian teak. The building cost $300 million.

With architects from Tokyo and Toronto, a museography team from Paris and a landscape architect from Lebanon, the museum boasts the collective hard work of diverse professionals.

The decision to host the complex in Toronto was a strategic one.

Azim Alibhai, the museum’s chief communications consultant, says there couldn’t be a better place to have the museum.

“Canada embraces diversity and builds on its strengths. Toronto is 
a cosmopolitan cultural hub that loves the arts.”

He said the museum is in an apt location because there are more than 125 museums and public archives and an estimated 60 million people “within a one-hour flying time radius of Toronto.”

The museum is also a celebration of culture for Toronto’s large Muslim community. Alibhai said he hopes “both Muslims and non-Muslims alike will get to know one another better,” and that the museum becomes a “source of pride and identity.”

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the museum is its active performing arts calendar, what Alibhai calls “a multi-sensory introduction to civilizations that are often painted with a single brush.” The auditorium will host performers from different parts of the globe, focusing on acts that depict traditions of Islamic communities.

For fine diners, the museum’s Diwan restaurant offers tastes of Turkey, Iran, North Africa, Central and South Asia. For those in search of merchandise, the building has a gift shop that features items inspired by the museum’s collection of nearly 1,000 artifacts.

Barbara Smatlanek drove from Sudbury to visit the museum and she said she was pleasantly surprised to see its collection.

“It opens the door to another culture we don’t usually see.”

She says the museum challenges the stereotypes that Islam is a violent religion: “Islam (is) not just what you see on the news, all the yuck, yuck stuff. This is it.”


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