An ancient history scholar and classical archaeologist by training, Aga Khan Museum Director and CEO Henry S. Kim joined the museum in 2012 after spending 17 years teaching, curating collections and managing capital projects at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England. With a collection of artefacts dating from the 8th century to the 21st century, and a program of contemporary exhibitions, lectures, film screenings and performances, the Toronto-based museum is quickly making a significant impact on its local, national and international community. artBahrain contributing editor Paul Laster recently spoke with the director to learn about the mission of the new museum, its dynamic architecture, and adventurous programming.

What is the mission of the Aga Khan Museum?

The mission of the Aga Khan Museum is to foster a greater understanding and appreciation of the contribution that Muslim civilizations have made to world heritage. Through education, research, and collaboration, the Museum encourages dialogue and promotes tolerance and mutual understanding among people.

Why was the museum sited in Toronto?

Toronto—and Canada—is internationally recognized for embracing a remarkable diversity of languages and cultures. The feeling was then, that Toronto would provide an ideal home for an institution that strives to promote mutual understanding, respect and tolerance among the world’s cultures.

When did you join the museum as the director and CEO and what had you previously done to prepare you for this new role?

I joined the Aga Khan Museum in June 2012, having spent 17 years at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. When I arrived in Toronto, the construction of the Museum building was underway, but there was much work to be done in putting in place the professional teams and designing the galleries and our public programs. I was very fortunate that I faced many similar challenges during my career in Oxford, where I was in charge of the redevelopment of the Ashmolean. While building projects require grit and determination, developing the soft side of a museum requires patience, consultation and discussion, to come up with ideas and find ways of making them happen. All of these were skills that transferred across directly from the UK to Canada.

How was Fumihiko Maki chosen to design the museum and what did he bring to the design of the building that makes it unique?

Fumihiko Maki was chosen to design the Museum following a design competition to establish a concept design for the new museum. In designing the Museum, Maki combined contemporary design with historical elements originating in Islamic cultures, thereby building bridges between eras as well as civilizations. The Museum also has a compact footprint—81 metres long and 54 metres wide—but contains an impressive variety of spaces, including two exhibition galleries, areas for art conservation and storage, a 350-seat theatre, and two classrooms.

What did the two other central architects, Charles Correa and Vladimir Djurovic, contribute to the project?

Charles Correa designed the Ismaili Centre, Toronto which sits opposite the Aga Khan Museum, and which incorporates spaces for social and cultural gatherings, intellectual engagement and for spiritual reflection. The design of the Ismaili Centre’s crystalline frosted glass dome roof is mirrored in the five granite-lined pools of the formal gardens, which are part of the larger landscaped Park, designed by Vladimir Djurovic.

What’s the scope of the Aga Khan Museum’s collection?

The Aga Khan Museum’s Permanent Collection includes artefacts dating from the 8th century to the 21st century, and which cover a broad geography from Spain to Southeast Asia. The Collection includes many different types of artefacts including manuscripts, drawings, paintings, decorated ceramics, metalwork, and architectural ornamentation.

What are some of the highlights?

One of the main highlights of the Aga Khan Museum, that the Museum has come to be renowned for, is its collection of paintings, including Court of Kayumars, which comes from the Shahnameh (Book of Kings), and which was produced for the Safavid ruler of Iran, Shah Tahmasp I, and Ethics of Nasir.
Some other notable objects from the Permanent Collection include a recently acquired mother-of-pearl and lacquer tray from Gujarat, India which dates to the late 16th or early 17th century; a planispheric astrolabe from the Iberian Peninsula; a rare carved ivory tusk known as an Oliphant; Ibn Sina’s medical text; and a personal favourite of mine, a chestnut leaf with a calligraphic inscription.

How does the museum engage contemporary Islamic art?

The Aga Khan Museum has made a concerted effort to engage contemporary artists with both its Permanent Collection and its temporary exhibitions—several of the Museum’s past and upcoming temporary exhibitions, including Home Ground and Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet: Contemporary Persians have a focus on contemporary artists.

How did the artists in the first contemporary exhibition, “The Garden of Ideas: Contemporary Art from Pakistan”, respond to the museum’s collection and its own Islamic garden?

This was a remarkable project, as the Museum and its gardens were just being built at the time when we started working with the six artists for the exhibition. As we started thinking about the project, we wanted to develop the exhibition around ideas that were specific to the Museum, its collection, and its location. Among the many works on display were some that are truly memorable—Imran Qureshi responded with The Garden Within, a work that was created on the pavement between the reflecting pools of the Park, plus a series of miniature works that built upon the theme of the Garden; Aisha Khalid created an imaginative tapestry Your way begins on the other side which filled a large vertical space in our atrium and provides a surprise to everyone; and Atif Khan used images and patterns from the Museum’s collection to create a digital collage printed onto wall-paper.

The museum has also featured contemporary Arab art in the exhibition “Home Ground: Contemporary Art from the Barjeel Art Foundation.” What was the focus of that show?

The focus of Home Ground was to illustrate how private life can be shaped by current political events, as well as to demonstrate the 12 Arab artists’ awareness of struggle—the struggle to cross geopolitical borders; the struggle to forge an identity in an ever-shifting world; and the inherent struggle of being an artist.

Your current exhibition, “Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet: Contemporary Persians highlights the work of established and emerging artists from the Afkhami Foundation. What’s the range of the collection and who are some of the artists the museum will be exhibiting?

The Mohammed Afkhami Collection includes 300 works from both pre-and-post revolution Iran; 27 of which have been selected for the exhibition, including photography, video installation, sculpture, and paintings. Some of the artists to be feature in the exhibition are Tehran-based artist Shirian Aliabadi, Shiraz-born artist Farhad Moshiri, Iranian-Canadian artist and sculptor Parviz Tanavoli, and late photographer and filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami.

The museum also recently presented “Syria: A Living History,” which surveyed the long cultural dialogue the country has had with the MENAM region. Why was it important for you to present this show at this time?

Syria is a very important exhibition as the story of Syria’s rich multicultural history has been absent from the public’s perception of the country and its peoples in recent years. We found it remarkable that since the start of the Syrian conflict, there had not been an exhibition on Syria by a museum worldwide. As the conflict deepened in 2015 and 2016, we felt this was the time when such an exhibition was desperately needed. For the public, it is not only a chance to learn more about a region that was a cradle of civilization and a crossroads that linked cultures over 5,000 years, but also home to a vast population of resettled refugees who now live among us in the west.

What other types of programming does the museum do to engage the community?

The Museum’s programming is divided into two categories—Education and Performing Arts. The Education programming seeks to engage visitors through lectures, workshops, and events, including special programming for children and families, offered every Sunday and on holidays in the Museum’s Education Centre. Performing Arts programming creates a platform to showcase the talents of international musicians, performers, and filmmakers with its roster of concerts, theatre, dance, and film screenings.

How much of the museum’s collection is available for viewing online?

Approximately 170 key highlights from the Permanent Collection are currently available for viewing on the Museum’s website.

Does social media play a role in the museum’s outreach program?

The Aga Khan Museum is very engaged with audiences on several social media platforms, including Facebook (facebook.com/agakhanmuseumtoronto), Twitter (@agakhanmuseum), and Instagram (@agakhanmuseum).

What’s the takeaway from a visit to the Aga Khan Museum?

An understanding that the Muslim world is a place of amazing creativity and imagination, both in the past and the present, reflecting the diversity of its cultures; and that through objects you can see a different world history, in which cultures interact and build upon one another’s strengths through the arts.