TORONTO — The Aga Khan is a smiling man, genial, with twinkling eyes and never less than a faint trace of benign good will turning up the corners of his mouth. He smiled all the way through a speech last month at the opening of the new Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, especially while alluding to the innate happiness embodied in the branch of Shiite Islam of which he is the spiritual leader, Ismailism: “We are a community that welcomes the smile,” he said.
The museum, designed by the renowned and venerable Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki, is a physical extension of that smile. Sitting on a nearly 17-acre site a few miles northeast of downtown Toronto, it is part of a larger campus devoted not just to worship, but to cultural outreach, concerts, lectures and other events — or “enrichment, dialogue and warm human rapport,” in the words of its benefactor. The museum will display prized selections from a collection of some 1,000 objects, many of them exceptionally fine, and the curators are clearly ambitious to make it both a popular and academic center for the study of Islamic art. Presenting a positive understanding of Islamic civilization — a problematic term that encompasses a huge range of cultural diversity and centuries of history — is an explicit goal. “We hope this Museum will contribute to a better understanding of the peoples of Islam in all of their religious, ethnic, linguistic, and social diversity,” the Aga Khan said in a statement before the Sept. 18 opening.
Museums exist to do many things, and increasingly it seems the presumed traditional function of the museum — to preserve, study and disseminate culture —is merely one among many in the world of museum multitasking. Museums exist as cultural centers, ideological think tanks, economic development engines, nationalist rallying grounds and nodal points for ethnic, religious and other subcultural forms of solidarity. Of course, museums always were ideological, especially the great art and science museums that arose in the 19th century to preach citizenship, enlightenment and good manners to hoi polloi; now a multiplicity of public relations agendas are openly embraced and explicitly built into the museum’s mission.
The Aga Khan’s purpose isn’t just to showcase the diversity of Islamic cultural production. It is to express an Islamic identity that is non-threatening and capable of assimilation without dissolution into secular, democratic society with an emphasis on youth, prosperity, education and success in both spiritual and worldly matters. When the Ismaili campus was being planned, in 1996, the younger generation of Canadian Ismailis was asked for input; and at the opening festivities last month, their successors a chic young cohort born not long before the planning began, were conspicuously and charismatically present as volunteers. The museum also includes classroom space and plans for a robust educational agenda.
During the opening festivities of the museum and its neighbor, the Ismaili Centre (an assembly and worship space designed by the noted Indian architect Charles Correa), the unspeakable remained unspoken: Thousands of miles away, radical Sunni groups were decapitating hostages and filming the barbarity for distribution on the Internet. But between what the Aga Khan advocates and what the Islamic State does is a nearly infinite spectrum of human potential and degradation.
The Aga Khan, of course, is an extremely wealthy man, with a personal fortune estimated two years ago by Forbes magazine to be $800 million. Although he governs no actual physical territory, he is among the richest royals in the world. The Ismaili religion also involves a complex system of tithes that help fund Ismaili centers and the needs of the Ismaili community. His position as a spiritual leader, however, has led him to develop a global commitment to philanthropy, with historic preservation and architecture among his central interests. Anyone who has traveled in Central Asia, the Middle East or Africa will recognize the name and admirable works of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, which also developed the new museum.
As a supporter of architecture, the Aga Khan has sponsored a prestigious design award that honors efforts to thread a complicated aesthetic and architectural needle: how to integrate regional and vernacular styles from Islamic societies with a modernist, more internationally aware agenda? In practice, this comes down to a problem that haunts architects today no matter where they are working: how to balance traditional and contemporary thinking without ending in parody, pastiche or generic functionalism with a little decoration on top?
The new museum building, by the 86-year-old Maki, strives for the monumental solidity of ancient forms, with a nod to the precise lines and counterintuitive bravado of contemporary ones. Clad in white Brazilian granite, the walls are canted slightly inward at the base and outward at the top, as if the bottom is a giant plinth on which a gently overhanging cap has been set. This creates a dialogue between the superhuman massivity one might find in pre-Columbian architecture and the engineering and sculptural virtuosity one finds anywhere there is more money than sense, including the super-wealthy boom towns of the Persian Gulf.
The larger form is horizontal, a museum set close to the ground, connected to its gardens and making no effort to compete vertically with the entirely undistinguished office-park buildings nearby. Light is brought into the interior through a relatively small courtyard and six hexagonal “lenses” cut into the roof line. An overscaled canopy, made of metal and seemingly sharp as a knife blade, marks the entrance, and a large cut through the top of the building allows for a geometric form to rise above the space occupied by the steeply raked auditorium. The interior is not particularly generous to gallery space: Of the building’s more than 110,000 square feet, less than 20,000 is reserved for exhibiting objects. These spaces are divided into a lower-level gallery, where a shifting display of objects from the permanent collection will be shown, and upper-level galleries, where special exhibitions can be mounted. The rest of the museum is given over to a restaurant, gift shop, classrooms, theater, storage and office space.
And so, like the collection itself, the entire presentation is meant to be jewel-like: a carefully curated sampling of impressive objects, with no effort to be synoptic or comprehensive (indeed, art from Persia and the Mughal Empire dominates that of other regions). The building itself feels like a space-age container for these gems, a sleek, flattering presentation box, without much emphasis on transparency. The canopy above the entrance looks as if it is designed to close up like a giant metal shutter, recessing into the interior when enemies or foul weather approach, which underscores a slightly blank, hermetic and cool message to the outside world.
It is difficult to know what benchmark you should use for assessing the museum: Is this a small and somewhat disappointing effort to be a great international museum of Islamic art? Or is this a rather impressive entry into the world of great private collections — the Islamic Frick, or the Mughal Morgan Library? If you manage your expectations toward the latter, you will enjoy the experience without reservation.
Visitors to the main-floor galleries encounter two video introductions to the visual culture they are about to experience: The first is a kind of fantasia on patterning, helping the eye break down and build up some of the basic patterns and geometries so fundamental to many Islamic artistic traditions; the second shows the multiplicity of Islamic cultures over time — the Fatimids, Umayyads, Safavids, Mughals, the Aceh Sultanate, the Mamluks, etc. — that must be considered in any larger historic account of history.
The galleries are white, the floors wooden, and every object has a lot of room to breathe — perhaps too much. You feel a bit as if you are island-hopping through a giant sea of Islamic culture rather than touring any one place or region methodically. But the objects themselves are often breathtaking: pottery from the Ottoman courta stunning rug that would dwarf most modern rooms, pages from some of the finest Shah-Nameh collections ever assembled (or, alas, disassembled, as is too often the case), an ivory horn carved in southern Italy with an early 17thcentury silver mount added in England — one of several powerful exemplars of the cultural porosity between Europe and Islam over the ages.
The diffusion of the permanent lower galleries was only emphasized by a wonderfully concise and exciting temporary exhibition of prints and drawings on the second floor, “In Search of the Artist,” featuring artists known to history from Iran, India and other Central Asian countries. It was small, rich, dense and focused. And that likely points to the best path forward for the larger museum: to forget about the project everyone knows is impossible, to forget about representing Islamic culture with any kind of general overview, and todevote the entire museum to a more focused study of particulars. But that will mean having confidence to let go of the impulse to put a generalized smile on Islamic culture and substitute, instead, the scholar’s furrowed brow.
Aga Khan Museum. 77 Wynford Dr., Toronto. (+41 22) 909 7200 or agakhanmuseum.org.