Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Sunday at the Aga Khan Museum

We went recently to fulfil the promise I made around Christmas: to see the "Lost Dhow" exhibit at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto.

The dhow in question is a 8th 9th century CE shipwreck that was recently excavated near the Belitung Islands in the strait between Sumatra and Borneo. The ship, an Arabic dhow more than a Chinese junk, was trading between China and Arabia, and while the ship itself is mostly gone, the non-perishable cargo is both amazing and amazingly well preserved, particularly the ceramics. Barely two centuries after the death of Muhammed and the rise of the Islamic powers, pottery centres in central China were producing wares decorated with Arabic motifs, confident they could ship and sell them profitably across such an extended route. The Maritime Silk Route, they call it now, and the Belitung wreck is the best existing evidence of it -- though all the silk that would have been in the cargo has vanished without trace.

The whole thing is elegantly and seriously presented in this cooperation between the Aga Khan Museum and the museum in Singapore that has the other 99% of the materials salvaged -- but what they sent us is pretty terrific.  Having started my historical career on the Atlantic trade routes of an eighteenth century cod-trading port, I found all this trade history right up my alley. Go see this if you can.

The greater revelation was the rest of the Aga Khan Museum.  The subject of the Museum is Muslim- and Muslim-related arts and civilizations.  And if the job of a museum is to present with care and passion things and places you don't otherwise know much about, then the Aga Khan is the best museum in Toronto by a country mile right now. I really don't know my Abbasids from my Umayyads, but I now know a hell of a lot more about the astonishing range and richness of Islamic arts and cultures from across a huge sweep of the planet.  Eye popping stuff in every case and vitrine.

The dhow is leaving in April, the museum is permanent. Good building too,  Fumihiko Maki refers skillfully throughout to Arabic and Islamic architecture, but it is also a good space for, you know, presenting museum exhibits -- things that were not so much a priority in the recent renovations at Art Gallery of Ontario and the Royal Ontario Museum.

Given how much of our image of Islam is shaped these days by propaganda, the museum is doing good service -- something the donor no doubt had in mind.

Update, March 5:  A historian friend who lives outside Canada tells me 1) he has a family connection to the Ismaili Muslim community, of which the Aga Khan is head, 2) that "this museum is a BIG deal in the community," and 3) that he's doing his best to make links to this post go viral in the Ismaili networks. Thanks.  If it's working, welcome, new readers! 

Update, March 10:  Ismailimail gives us some love.
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