Let me begin by saying how happy I am to be back in Istanbul, a city which lies close to my heart and to which I have returned regularly since I was a schoolboy. That, incidentally, in case you had not guessed, was a very long time ago.
Istanbul holds a very special position, both geographically and in the history of world culture. The City has for me a special meaning, too, since historically it has been the bridge between Asia and Europe, between the cultures of the East and the West, between the world of Islam and the non-Muslim world. Istanbul embodies a theme which is of particular interest to me, personally, which is the dialogue of cultures. Whether it occurs along the great trade routes, over land or over sea, or whether it occurs for reasons essentially geographic, this dialogue of cultures has nearly always resulted in an upsurge of creativity, in a continuing cultural renewal.
In my view, this dialogue is more essential today than ever.
I should like also to express my most sincere thanks to the Sakip Sabanci Museum and in particular to the Chairperson of its Board, Ms Güler Sabançi, as well as to Dr. Nazan Ölçer, for hosting this presentation of some of the works from the collection of the future Aga Khan Museum. I am delighted that this should take place precisely this year, when Istanbul is being celebrated as the Cultural Capital of Europe, a distinction which, if I may be permitted to say so, is amply justified.
The Aga Khan Museum, which is currently under construction in Toronto, Canada, is expected, Insh’Allah, to open its doors in 2013. It will be the first museum in North America primarily devoted to Islamic arts and culture with a potential range of visitors stretching from New York, Chicago and Detroit to Vancouver. It is our intention that our museum should play a leading educational role enabling visitors from the area of Toronto and indeed from around the world to discover and to understand better all aspects of Islamic arts and Muslim culture.
The Museum’s collection spans a millennium of Muslim history and I think I can say that it is particularly strong in the arts of the book, in works on parchment and paper. It has been meticulously constituted through a long process of acquisitions made by my brother His Highness the Aga Khan and it integrates the collection of my late uncle, Prince Sadruddin, and his wife, my Aunt Catherine, a collection that is well known and which was the object of exhibitions organized by them some years ago in cities such as London and Geneva. I should like to thank my Aunt Catherine here for her generous donation to the museum of works currently in her home in Geneva, some of which, such as the splendid ceramics with calligraphic inscriptions, you will be seeing today.
In view of Sakip Sabanci’s special interest in the Arts of the Book and Calligraphy, we have decided to focus on these art forms in the exhibition presented here. However, the works on parchment and paper shown here are complemented by a range of objects, metalwork, ceramics, wooden beams, textiles and jewelry, all of which are examples of fine epigraphy, either Qur’anic or poetical. In this fashion, we have sought to create an exhibition that is synergistic with the Sakip Sabanci Museum’s own collection, while simultaneously presenting objects and materials from Islamic cultures, other than exclusively that of the Ottoman world, on treasures from all parts of the Muslim world, from Andalusia to China.
It is my hope that the collection presented here will provide the public with an appreciation of the pluralism of Muslim cultures emanating from different and varied regional and historic aesthetics, some as different as those characteristic of the Mughul Empire or of the Egyptian Fatimids, but that all nevertheless shows the unity of Muslim cultures as well as their pluralism. Unity within diversity. These are essential aspects of the arts of Islam (both the diversity and the unity) which I feel are too often forgotten nowadays, within the Muslim world and outside of it. As the exhibition shows, both the ethic and the aesthetics of Islam are cosmopolitan.
Of particular interest to me is the question of museography: how best to exhibit works on paper and other objects typical of Muslim cultures that originally were destined to be picked up, touched, examined and used but whose fragility now imposes constraints and challenges. I find that the current, “traditional” means of exhibiting such works of art -- untouchable, often almost invisible -- runs in some measure contrary to the essential nature of the objects. I would like to discover a means of exhibiting them which is new and original. This exhibition is one in a series of exhibitions of different works from our collection that have been seen by several hundred thousand people in Italy, England, France, Portugal, Germany and Spain, with more exhibitions to come in the months ahead in the United States, Russia and elsewhere in places such as India, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. It is my hope that all these exhibitions will lead us to identify precisely such an original and new museography to which we can turn when it comes to finishing the proposed Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, Canada.
It is our intention to enter into agreements and to create working relationships with a number of museums and private collections that have distinguished collections of Islamic art, so as to be able, in the years ahead, to put together top flight temporary travelling exhibitions.
To this end, we have already initiated discussions with the Louvre in Paris, the Metropolitan in New York and others.
This exhibition at the Sakip Sabanci Museum will thus be, I trust, the first step in a durable and continuing cooperation between the Aga Khan Museum and the Sakip Sabanci Museum. I hope that, in the years ahead, we will be able to organize together joint travelling exhibitions and other forms of cooperation destined to bring a greater understanding of the cultural accomplishments of Muslim civilizations and, in so doing, to combat the ignorance that too often surrounds us and that is the father of so much intolerance. Our essential aim should be to underline commonalities and shared heritage as a way of counteracting misconceptions and prejudice.