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  • Prince Amyn Aga Khan speaking at the opening ceremony of the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto in the presence of His Highness the Aga Khan and Prime Minister of Canada Stephen Harper.
    AKDN / Zahur Ramji
Opening of the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto

Bismillah-ir-Rahman-ir-Rahim

Prime Minister Harper,
Your Highness, my brother,
Madame Clarkson,
Excellencies,
Ms Shelly Glover, Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages,
Honourable Ministers,
Chancelier de Broglie,
Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Friends,

What a pleasure it is to welcome you to this exceptional place on this most special day. Exceptional because we are inaugurating today not one but two new and unique buildings, facing each other across a new and unique park, two utterly unusual pieces of architecture housing surprising reflections of beauty. This is also a special moment because of the special role that we expect the Aga Khan Museum to play, as a gateway into the history and artistic traditions of the Muslim world — nearly a fifth of humanity — for those non-Muslims and even Muslims who wish better to understand that world.

The Aga Khan Museum will play this role at a time when such a gateway is profoundly needed. All across the planet, political and economic developments, the forces of globalisation, are connecting Muslim and non-Muslim societies ever more intimately and yet, at the same time, misunderstandings between those worlds are becoming an increasingly dangerous threat. Expanded and improved means of communication can as easily be used to cause divisions and fragmentation as they can to unify and breed understanding. Despite the advances we have witnessed through improved technology and through globalisation, a knowledge gap continues to exist and perhaps even grow, and the result of that gap is a vacuum within which myths and stereotypes can so easily fester, fed by the amplification of extreme minority voices. Symbols become confused with emblems. Images of demagoguery or despotism, of intolerance and conflict, come to dominate in such an environment with global repercussions.

That context is precisely the reason that the potential contribution of an institution such as the Aga Khan Museum can be so important. I believe strongly that art and culture can have a profound impact in healing misunderstanding and in fostering trust even across great divides. This is the extraordinary purpose, the special mandate, to which this Museum is dedicated.

In its role to reveal and to stimulate dialogue between different cultures, the Aga Khan Museum will continue a long history of cultural sharing between Islam and the West.

Historians tell us that as early as the 9th century, trade and commerce were bringing objects of art from the Muslim to the European world – from the far reaches of the Iranian region, for example, all the way to the Carolingian courts of Northern Europe. A century later, rock crystal ewers and other Islamic art from North Africa, then part of the Fatimid Caliphate, appeared in the collections of European courts and can be traced in the ledgers of the treasuries of European churches. By the time you get to the “Cabinet de Curiosités” of the 16th century in Europe, often partially open to the public and perhaps the precursors of the modern museum, numerous works of art from the Muslim world are to be found. Of course, at that time, and indeed for centuries afterward, the acquisition of cultural treasures in the West happened mostly in private settings, in aristocratic homes and palaces. Only later, as the idea of the museum as a public institution began to take hold, especially after the opening of the British Museum in London in the mid-18th century and the Louvre in Paris, art from the Muslim world began to find a wider European audience. Colonialism inevitably increased that audience.

In the Muslim world, collecting and public displays of rare and beautiful objects were common. The notion of Waqf itself, of property given for the public good and for religious purposes, engendered a widespread movement to collect. Public displays of artefacts were a feature of the Fatimid period and precious objects from the treasure were publicly paraded through the streets of Cairo. In Central Asia, in the middle periods many Muslim rulers collected and displayed to visitors their finest objects. From as early as 1607, for instance, in Safavid Iran, Shah Abbas the Great organised public displays of his collection and made a Waqf donation to his ancestral shrine of his gold, silver and jade vessels, his Chinese porcelain, his Persian manuscripts and textiles, thus making them available to be seen by visitors to that shrine. Like in the West, the largest collections were usually the possessions of kings, caliphs and religious institutions. The oldest museum in Asia, I am told, was established in the late 18 th century by the Asiatic Society in Bengal and, of course, Khedive Ismail conceived the Cairo Museum in the late 19th century.

What should be noted is that there is a long history from the earliest courts across the Ummah such as the Abassids in Baghdad in the 8th century, or the Fatimids in Egypt, of seeking out and bringing together the best artists, scientists and scholars, the best creators, of the time, irrespective of their religious, ethnic or political backgrounds. The pursuit of cultural excellence resulted in Western, as also Far Eastern art and learning becoming important elements in Muslim life within an ethic of tolerance and collaboration. A manifestation of this approach was, of course, Al Andalous in the Iberian Peninsula where Muslim leaders welcomed Christian and Jewish participants in a rich cultural life, pluralistic so to speak. The same approach characterised the Mughal courts of Hindustan, the Uzbecks of Bokhara, Ottoman Turkey.

One should not forget too that creating and maintaining libraries has always been part of the lifestyles of the wealthier men and women in Muslim countries. And those libraries, as often as not, contained illustrations or miniatures in their manuscripts. I cannot help wondering whether libraries and museums do not overlap in function and whether the former do not inevitably lead to the latter.

I think it is accurate to say that in Muslim societies the pursuit of artistic and cultural excellence has for many centuries been a hallmark of the life in those societies, just as for them the aesthetic experience has always been seen as part of the learning process.

The Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, that we are opening today, will differ slightly from the many famous institutions that currently have impressive collections of Islamic art in the Western world. For this Museum will be one of the very few institutions in the Western world, and indeed the only one in the Western hemisphere, that will be entirely devoted to the acquisition, preservation, study and display of the arts of Muslim civilisations. The great majority of the best known Western institutions have collections of Islamic art that are a smaller part of their larger international collections.

Here in Toronto, visitors from all over the world will be uniquely able to experience and appreciate the intellectual, cultural and artistic heritage of Muslim civilisations in all of its rich diversity. Simply by emphasising that diversity, the Museum will make an important point that is so often now misunderstood by both the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds.

The thousand and more treasures gathered here come from Spain, the Maghreb, the Arab near-East, from the Iranian world that stretched through Afghanistan and Central Asia, from the courts of Hindustan, now India and Pakistan, and the Muslim communities of China. As I reflect on this diversity, the word “connection” comes to mind for it will be the special opportunity of this Museum to connect a broad array of Muslim cultures with one another, while also connecting visitors from other cultures to the richness of the Muslim past. Cultural connection will be at the heart of the Museum’s mission: to increase and illuminate the dialogue between different Muslim civilisations themselves and between those civilisations and non-Muslim civilisations.

It is my hope that this Museum will execute its mandate in a variety of ways which will go beyond what happens on casual, cursory visits, although we know that even short visits in a place like this can become moments of powerful inspiration: learning can happen consciously or unconsciously, understanding can be instinctive or reasoned. The work of the Museum will follow in the best tradition of the venerable Islamic cultural centre that I have mentioned earlier, where great libraries and other collections became prodigious centres for a continuing process of intellectual and artistic enquiry — a process of exploration and edification, of dialogue and discovery. It is my hope and expectation that this Museum will play an active and effective educational role, helping visitors to appreciate, understand and empathise with an aesthetic and a culture new but no longer foreign or alien to them. Furthermore, the Museum should endeavour to institute creative outreach activities into the schools and other educational institutions in this area. Personally, I do not subscribe to the current theory, possibly chic, that study of our cultural past by young artists limits, or even thwarts, their creativity and spontaneity. We are what we come from, and to think we come from nowhere is both an intellectual and a natural fallacy.

Having said that, the Aga Khan Museum will regularly organise temporary exhibitions of contemporary artists too, as it should reflect the evolution of the creative arts in the Muslim world.

In pursuing these objectives, the Museum will focus its attention not only on the acquisition, preservation and display of visual artistic creations, but also on a wide range of other cultural expressions, including poetry, philosophy and literature, music, architecture, science and social organisation. This is a Museum of Islamic Arts with a broad definition of all that the arts include, and presenting these arts as best we can within their full cultural context. Miniatures were not painted to be hung on white walls in rooms devoid of furniture or furnishings. Metal-ware was, for the most part, designed to be picked up and used or laid on furniture. In the sense that the arts reflect the senses, all of them, that usually one hears as one sees, just as instinct leads us to want to touch what we want to see most clearly, the interplay between the arts is as essential as the inter-relationship of the senses. The challenge will be how best to reveal the dialogue between the different arts themselves.

On the website for the Museum (which I urge you to visit), our distinguished Director, Henry Kim, gives us a picture of what we can anticipate: “Visitors to the Museum”, he says, “are as likely to view our permanent collection as they are to visit one of our many temporary exhibitions, to listen to a performance in the auditorium, attend a class, study architecture, tour the gardens, or sample food from the great cuisines of Turkey, Iran, North Africa, Central Asia and the Indian sub-continent.” As you can see, Henry plans to showcase all the senses, or all the Arts, in this institution, even if his personal emphasis would seem to lie in “the kitchen” and on taste.

An asset for the Museum in the fulfillment of its many-faceted mandate will be its close association with other institutions of the Aga Khan Development Network, many of which are represented here today. Among them are the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, The Historic Cities Program, the Aga Khan University, the Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations, the University of Central Asia, the Institute of Ismaili Studies, and the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. I am sure that many of you recall that day, just a little over four years ago, when we came to this site to mark this project’s transition from the planning stage to the building stage, from investigation to construction. And today, we celebrate again as we move from construction to realisation, with an enormous sense of gratitude to all those who have made this day possible.

Despite the difficulty of realising a project as complex as this, the years of imagination, anticipation and effort have finally been rewarded by the joy of realisation and we can now, at last, enter a period of active participation in the great work that this building will make possible. Je me souviens avec joie et satisfaction d’une discussion tenue en 2000, avec un groupe de jeunes Ismailis d’environ 25 ans d’âge, sur ce qu'ils considéraient comme les priorités que nous devrions observer dans les années à venir, et ces jeunes gens ont placé à l’époque, un musée, une facilité culturelle, une bibliothèque et une cour, allez savoir pourquoi une cour, sur la liste de priorités. Maintenant, ces jeunes hommes et femmes, dix ans plus vieux et sans doute très nerveux à l’approche de la vieillesse, sont j’espère heureux et fiers de ce que nous avons accompli.

There are so many people that I should thank today that it is difficult to know where to begin and I worry about forgetting somebody. I should like to give particular thanks to Princess Catherine Aga Khan, the widow of my late uncle, Prince Sadruddin. Not only has the collection that she and my uncle formed over the years constituted the nucleus of the Museum’s collections today, but she has allowed us to repeat, within the Museum, an entire room from their house in Geneva, which we call the Bellerive room, and which is a space I personally find as poetic as it is illuminating. I must also thank my brother and all those who have lent or given works of art to enlarge and expand our collections. And, of course, thanks go to our architects, Fumihiko Maki and Gary Kamemoto, Moriyama and Teshima, Adrien Gardere, our contractors and sub-contractors, the Imara team who provided project management, and to the many generous friends who donated their time, or already their resources, to ensure that this project took shape.

Professor Maki’s inspiring building that we are opening today faces the new Ismaili Center, designed by Charles Correa, across the Aga Khan Park designed by Vladimir Djurovic. As a whole, this entire site speaks to the unity in Islamic thought – the profound unity – of three great dimensions of human life: the cultural, the spiritual and the natural. There must also be symbolic value in the fact that the three architects who took the lead in designing these spaces come from Japanese, Indian and Lebanese backgrounds – brought together here in the spirit of international partnership which is also such a proud part of Canadian culture.

Let me conclude by saying that if I were looking for a single word to sum up my intention and hope for the Aga Khan Museum, it would be the word “enlightenment”. It is a word which has both cultural and spiritual significance. The history of the thought and the creations of man can perhaps be said to be a long path from one period of enlightenment to another. I would hope that this Museum will contribute to a new period of enlightenment, helping visitors from around the world to rediscover the common symbols that unite us all across the globe, across all civilisations, across time.

And so, it is in a spirit of immense gratitude that we open this Museum, respectful of the rich traditions that it represents and hopeful about the role it can play in the great, continuing work of cultural connection.

Thank you.