15 Oct

Elegant but Puzzling: The Aga Khan Museum was going to be in London, is it better off in Toronto?

Maurice Davies

Arriving at the newly opened Aga Khan Museum is a strange experience. Once planned for the banks of the Thames in central London, the museum opened on 18 September in suburban Toronto. Its luxurious building is rather incongruous, next to a noisy expressway, just along from buildings housing offices for banks and McDonalds.

As you approach the museum, starkly isolated from any kind of context apart from the neighbouring Ismali Centre, you feel it could just as easily be in the Gulf as in urban North America. There are inevitable resonances with the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, although sadly the Toronto version doesn’t share its magnificent setting and views. Mind you, if the architect had arranged things differently, there could’ve been an attractive vista of downtown.

The interior combines 21st-century corporate minimalism with Islamic patterns – in the glazing and in carved wooden panels, for example. Sunlight is allowed to gently filter into some of the galleries. The artificial lighting is superbly done. The ambient light level is quite low, with gentle touches of spotlighting on the displays. Every single object is evenly lit; there are no shadows and virtually no reflections.

Elegant, well-lit, relaxed galleries, what’s not to like? Unfortunately, the architectural design is far from perfect as the galleries all open into each other, with no doors, or even narrowed openings separating them. That might make for easy, free-flowing visitor circulation, but there are hard edges and hard surfaces with little to absorb sound. It’s uncomfortably noisy, with multiple echoes from visitors’ voices and footsteps.There is also distracting noise overspill from videos in the temporary exhibition gallery, on a balcony high above.

The permanent-collection displays combine restrained av presentations with items presented almost individually as great works of art. Some are on open display; others in the most minimally elegant showcases I’ve ever seen, possibly the most expensive, too.

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The ghastly modern paraphernalia of smoke alarms, exit signs, plug sockets and switches has been fairly effectively corralled and disciplined. But some things still jar, such as a brightly lit exit sign adjacent to a 15th- century carpet. Perhaps it’s a mark of democracy that bureaucrats can thwart the designs of even the richest men in the world.

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The displays look lovely, but elegance does not always support understanding. Some labels are so far removed from objects that it’s impossible to work out which description refers to which artefact. A particularly frustrating example is a case where 10th-century bowls are displayed in two rows of three, but the labels are in a block of three rows of two. I had no idea which was which.

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Some visitors struggled to identify things. I overheard a couple puzzling over the function of a large marble fountain and pond. I eventually found its official label, hidden at ground level a couple of metres away on the plinth to a different object. Presumably done in the interests of not detracting from the beauty of the object, that was a plain daft decision – especially as the fountain itself is festooned with no less than five ‘do not touch’ notices.

There’s a nice alternative to minimalism in the Bellerive Room. Carpeted and comfortably furnished, it displays islamic ceramics inspired by the way they were arranged in an earlier Aga Kan’s home in Geneva, in showcases made from Spanish church pews.

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Unfortunately, the only view from the room’s window is the museum car park. Apparently the view from the museum members’ room is better than any granted to the ordinary visitor.

So, a good museum but not a great one and I don’t envisage large numbers of people making the journey. It has that mildly depressing dehumanised soullessness of contemporary minimalist luxury. It’s a bit of a vanity project and it would probably have been better if it had needed to argue for external funding.

It bills itself as ‘the first museum in north America dedicated to the intellectual, cultural and artistic heritage of Muslim civilisations’. (Intriguingly, the word ‘islam’ appears to be largely avoided.) A member of staff told me that the museum ended up in Toronto as a mark of respect for, or even a gift in return for, the city’s extraordinary openness to migrants and to different cultures. If that’s the case, then it might’ve been less happy in central London. More accessible, certainly, but at the heart of a nation that seems ever more backward-looking, isolationist and frightened of the rest of the world.

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