PD Day in Toronto – Part One – The Aga Khan Museum

Yesterday started off with me cracking a tooth on a piece of 12 grain toast (so much for whole grains being good for you…) After a trip into Toronto for emergency dental work, we had the rest of the day to ourselves, so we decided to make the best of it while my face thawed.

View of the permanent collection gallery

Our first museum stop was the Aga Khan Museum. The Aga Khan is the latest addition to the Toronto museum scene and has been open almost four years. Despite best intentions, I had not made it in yet because the museum is far from our usual destination – downtown Toronto. It would take the best part of an hour to get there by public transit from downtown Toronto, and with Toronto’s traffic, nearly as much time by car. It is built on the site of the old Bata Shoe headquarters where I worked for seven years before the Bata Shoe Museum opened on Bloor street in 1995. Instead of the concrete internationalist style of the old Bata HQ, the Aga Kahn is a postmodern multi-facetted geometric edifice of white marble that would look at home in a sand-swept equatorial climate, but looks more like an oddly-shaped igloo in Canada. Inside, the building is impressive with black marble walls and decorative metal grid windows surrounding a courtyard where light creates playful shadows. However, trying to get into the building is a challenge.

Firstly, it is not clear which entrance you are supposed to use to get to the parking from the main road, and once you figure that out the signs say authorized parking ¬†only. As I am not a staff member, visiting dignitary, or delivery person, I assumed I was not authorized but it turns out visitors are authorized (they really need to reword those signs.) After driving over some of the largest speed bumps this side of the border between North and South Korea, we paid $10.00 to park underground. Signs for the entrance directed visitors to the P2 level, but after walking the entire perimeter of the underground parking we discovered it was about 40 feet from where we had parked — it just doesn’t look like an entrance.

The entrance to the museum from P2

I was now annoyed, especially when I realized we would have to pay $40.00 on top of parking to get into the museum. However, my awful day began to thaw along with my jaw when we got to the counter and discovered that the museum was free after 4 p.m.on Wednesdays. I guess that is why the museum was also busy — in fact it was crowded.

The museum has three exhibition spaces. The first is a small gallery of Islamic pottery that was a gift to the museum by the late¬†Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan on the condition the collection be displayed in the same manner as it had been in his home. The main gallery is a huge ‘L’-shaped contemporary space for the permanent collection’s overview exhibition of Islamic cultural material. Upstairs there is a duplicate of the main gallery for special exhibitions. Currently there is a loan display from Egypt about the World of the Fatimids.

The tilework panel above had a great story: The iconography is under debate but some feel it is the prophet Muhammad’s sandals depicted under a lamp, alluding to the concept of God being like a light shining in a niche.

Our museum experience was good – there were pop-up musicians every hour on the hour, the staff were super pleasant and helpful, and there was even a decent concession stand with tasty and affordable food. The main gallery with the overview of Islamic cultural material was excellent, albeit perhaps the labels were a little too academic for most museum visitors because of their use of undefined terms.

The show approaches the topic chronologically and comparatively, following the progress of Islam across the Middle East, into Europe and Asia. A colourful display of Turkomen garments are disappointingly barely identified amidst the academically described caligraphy-illuminated Qurans, lustreware pottery, and brassware.

Display of 19th and 20th century robes from Turkmenistan. The robe on the right is a chyrpy – a woman’s cloak with false sleeves

After a break, we tackled the upstairs special exhibition about the Fatimids (we had to take an elevator because we couldn’t find stairs.) The first part of the exhibition summed up the story very well, but by the time we got halfway through this large exhibition, everything began to look the same — more of what we had already seen downstairs and not as impressive in terms of artistry or condition. At this point we had been at the museum for two hours and fatigue was setting in, so we skimmed the rest of the exhibition then tried to watch a presentation that we couldn’t hear for the noise outside the viewing room, and left.

The museum building has some beautiful elements but it lacks some logic. While the courtyard is stunning and the black marble lower hall and bathrooms luxurious, access into the building, and from floor to floor, is not easy to figure out. Regardless, this is a museum to keep your eye on for special events, concerts and important travelling shows, but check to see when there are free days, because $50.00 is a lot of money for two to visit a three gallery, one topic boutique museum — at least it is to me.

…Part Two – Iris Van Herpen

About Jonathan

Jonathan Walford is a fashion historian and co-founder of the Fashion History Museum in Cambridge, Ontario. The FHM maintains a collection of nearly 12,000 artifacts dating from the mid 17th century to the present. Jonathan has authored various books and museum catalogues, including The Seductive Shoe, Shoes A-Z, Forties Fashion, 1950s American Fashion, and Sixties Fashion.
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