In January 2017, Dr Henry Kim spoke at the FOMMA trust about the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto. Dr. Kim gave an interesting presentation on this monumental piece of architecture and described how a ground breaking institution such as this museum was paving new ways for art in the 21st century.
1) Let’s begin with your interest in museums; as a Harvard and Oxford trained historian, in your opinion could you tell us why do you think that museums are intrinsic to academia and why is it crucial for countries to invest in institutions that research and display historical artefacts to the public?
For people who are interested in the past, museums play a crucial role as they are the guardians of collections of art and artifacts that are our direct link to past histories. In an age when we are continuously bombarded with opinions and theory, objects hold an important role as primary evidence that cannot be erased and needs to be considered in any considered historical study of a time period or a place. For nations, investing in museums is important for not only for academia, but also for the public which deserve the chance to view the treasures of past cultures and to understand the complex and typically diverse histories of their own countries.
2) Tell us about what makes the Aga Khan Trust for Culture a unique initiative and how has your experience been working at the Aga Khan Museum. What makes this institution different from say, the Ashmolean Museum where you have worked previously?
The Aga Khan Museum is different to most museums, in that it is part of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and has access to the resources and the expertise that have been built up over the decades in supporting, studying and promoting the culture of Muslim civilizations across the world. Without this, the Museum could not have done many of the innovative exhibitions and performances that have been done in its short two-and-a-half year history, such as the current exhibition on Syria, and future exhibitions such as our forthcoming exhibition on Palmyra or the Fatimids in 2018. Even though we are a young museum, we operate as if we were a much older institution, with important links to universities, collections and governments worldwide.
3) Having studied Greek Archaeology, what are the reasons for your interest and inclination towards Islamic civilisations? On that note, do you find that there is a lack of global interest invested in expanding people’s horizons on the diversity of Islamic history? If so, why?
As an archaeologist, I have a profound interest in exploring the connections that take place among cultures across time and geography. More often than not, these cultural dialogues lead to wonderful and amazing developments that have shaped the course of artistic and human history. In looking at the Islamic world, I have been fascinated by the diversity and continuity of these contacts across its 1400 year history. In contrast to the question, I do believe there is an interest today in understanding the diversity of the history of the Islamic world, as this is an area of world history that has been under-studied or under-appreciated to date.
4) You have mentioned in previous interviews that the study of objects speaks volumes about cross cultural interaction. In history textbooks, Pakistan’s art and architectural heritage is immediately linked to the Mughal Empire and monotheistic practices while there is little emphasis placed on Buddhist, Hindu and Mongolian influences. Could you elaborate on how the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto can help enlighten people about the diversity of cultural history present in Muslim countries?
I think this is a task that goes well beyond the Aga Khan Museum, as understanding Pakistan’s rich and multicultural history is something that needs to be promoted by museums throughout the country and worldwide. Pakistan is a country that is only 70 years old, but the history of its lands and cultures stretches back over 5,000 years. How many countries can claim to be home to one of the oldest civilizations in the Indus Valley Civilization, to have witnessed Alexander the Great’s expeditions, to have given rise to the remarkable syncretic culture of the Gandharans, and is home to many sites that are important to Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims? Pakistan has been a crossroads of civilizations for much of its history, and I do believe it is important that this textured and complex history be better understood and promoted.
5) It seems that the arts is often singularly viewed as a luxury and tends to receive the least amount of governmental funding. In your experience, what are some ways in which museum directors, curators and artists can get the government to recognise the incredible need for museums in a country. We ask as publicly funded institutes for the arts in Pakistan tend to be poorly maintained and have a low number of visitors. Do you think there are ways in which this can be changed and encourage public funding for museums?
Museum directors and curators have an important job in demonstrating the role that art and culture play in the shaping of society today. As educational institutions, museums are important resources for the public in understanding their cultural and historical pasts, and are in my opinion necessities rather than luxuries. I do believe that in addition to this, museums need to show their relevance to issues that are faced within society today and be responsive to exploring how art and society work together to build communities. Museums and the arts have always struggled for funding worldwide, but the solution lies not only in public funding, but also the support of individuals and foundations that agree that the arts have an important role in society today. Building a broad base of support is important.
6 A current exhibition at the Aga Khan Museum, Syria: A Living History is a wonderful example of how art can provide counter narratives to politics and international affairs. As the museum focuses on diversity, pluralism and keeping an open mind, why do you think exhibitions such as the current one on Syria are important for large museums to endorse?
I think museums of all sizes have a role in exploring diversity and pluralism, and exhibitions such as Syria are useful lessons in how simple exhibition concepts can have powerful effects on the public’s understanding of current events. I remember back in February 2003, the Ashmolean held a small exhibition on Iraq in the weeks that preceded the Second Gulf War, as a powerful reminder of the important history of the region. This was an important exhibition which was organized quickly, and had much foresight on what would happen to culture in the country in the years that followed. MOMA as recently responded to the US visa travel ban by replacing seven works in its permanent galleries with works done by artists from the countries affected. As we look at the world today, there are more exhibitions of these types that are needed.
7) What are some of your personal favourite exhibitions at the Aga Khan Museum and tell us why?
These are far too many, as with each of the exhibitions we have held at the Museum, we have broken new ground on the public’s understanding of the art and culture of the Muslim world in different ways. Our current exhibition on Syria has been an eye-opener for most, as the important history of this country is little understood amid the turmoil the country faces. Likewise, our recently opened exhibition on Contemporary Persian Art has challenged many the stereotypes of Iranians today and came at the same time as the travel ban on US visa holders from Iran. I am proud we worked with the Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami on Doors without Keys shortly before his death in 2016. I am also most pleased that our opening exhibition, Garden of Ideas, showcased for the first time in North America the remarkable art that is being created in Pakistan today.
8) From your experience, why do you think that His Highness chose Toronto, Canada for the location of this museum? How does the location add to the vision of this museum?
The choice of Canada for the Museum was made very thoughtfully and reflects the shared values between the country and the Museum. As a museum, we celebrate diversity, pluralism and multiculturalism in our exploration of the arts and cultures of Muslim civilizations over 1,400 years. Canada is one of the most successful multicultural countries in the world today, and Toronto is one of the world’s most diverse and multicultural cities. For me, this came true when we opened the Museum and saw the positive response our visitors from Canada had to it.