Inside the Jewel Box: A Visit to the Aga Khan Museum

I am delighted to introduce my second Guest Blogger, RYAN CHURCH.

Ryan just graduated, with a Masters of Design in Strategic Foresight and Innovation, from OCADU. He is the founder and CEO of BiomeDesign Inc., and hails from British Columbia. His website is

Here’s Ryan…

Driving the Don Valley Parkway to the Aga Khan Museum does little to prepare you for what lies ahead. The complex includes the Ismaili Centre, a vast garden, and the sparkling white jewel box of the Museum. The jewels within the museum are just that, one-of-a-kind masterpieces that speak to the cultural richness of the Muslim world. The founder of the Aga Khan Museum wanted the museum to be a place where the Muslim world could be understood; its cultural riches, its crafts, arts, textiles, and knowledge made evident to the wider world.

As a designer, the first thing I noticed was the attention to detail. Every floor tile, every bathroom mirror, bejewelled seat cushion, window covering, and mural carries the same theme. No expense has been spared. Throughout, 99 variations on the word Allah and the theme of infinity done in a myriad of variations. All give a sense of unity and peace to the entire building. The geometrical and mathematical significance of these designs is not lost on those with elementary geometry – the square of odd numbers radiates and shimmers as light plays with shadow, day with night.

Entering the permanent collection, I was struck by the projections cast on the wall – the projectors themselves facing vertically and reflecting their images off mirrors; little slits in the wall, arranged just-so. Around the corner, treasures from the ancient world echo ancient and revered knowledge. A personal favourite is the famous Qanun, the Canon of Medicine of Ibn Sina from the mid 11th century. Within this velum volume is the medical knowledge of ancient Greece, that of Galen and Dioscorides, passed along the Silk Road as far as Iran where the Golden Age of Islam was flourishing. Beside it is a volume of Mansur’s Anatomy, the Tashrih-e Mansuri, complete with an illustrated full-colour image of our understanding of the human body at the time. We remember that much of ‘western’ medicine and knowledge was known in the near east for millennia before the Renaissance re-birth in the west.

Going further is yet another masterpiece, Ferdowsi’s epic poem, the Shahnameh, or ‘Book of Kings.’ Written at the beginning of the 11th century, this national epic of Iran spans some 60,000 verses. It tells both mythological and historical tales of the Persian Empire back to the beginning of time (570 AD, the birth of the Prophet Muhammad). The Museum has 11 folios of the most richly decorated of the manuscript, that of the reign of Shah Tahmasp (1524-1576). The rest, some 800 in total, are scattered around the world. These folios glitter with vibrant colour, ink and gold, and speak to the cultural richness of this museum. Among the 11 on site is the frontispiece of the Shah Tahmasp Shahnameh, known as the “Mona Lisa of Iran.” It is currently in storage for preservation but will be on display in the future – what a treat that will be! In the meantime, visitors can view photos of this folio on iPads located near the others.

The museum itself is not large but, unlike most museums, it compels you to observe and rest at each image and artifact, and to contemplate its significance for the birth of the modern world – and not just the Islamic world. That, perhaps, is the point: why the Aga Khan chose Toronto as the home for such an important cultural collection. Canada is seen, at least by some, as a model country where cultures and races from all backgrounds mix, and carry on with what it means to be human. The Aga Khan Museum is an outward manifestation of that, and we are all the richer for having it here in Toronto.

Parking costs $10 for the day, but you get a voucher equal to the parking fee if you visit the gift shop or have lunch in the restaurant, which you will want to do. A visit to the Museum, and the gardens, is more than an all-day affair.

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  1. Ben

    Great post we will have to visit the museum before we leave Toronto. I found your narrative on the rational for building such an institution in Toronto to be very interesting.

  2. Michiel

    We were at the Aga Khan yesterday, having joined some months ago. On this visit I particularly liked the temporary exhibition on “oriental” carpets and their depiction in 17th century Netherlandic art.


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