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‘Museums today need to reinvent themselves’

October 20, 2017

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DR Henry Kim speaks at AKU on Thursday.—White Star
DR Henry Kim speaks at AKU on Thursday.—White Star

KARACHI: “What are art and culture? How can they enhance the quality of life and make lives better?” These were some of the questions answered by director and CEO of the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, Canada, Dr Henry Kim, during his talk at the Aga Khan University’s Special Lecture Series on Thursday.

While introducing Dr Kim, director of the State Bank Museum and Art Gallery, Dr Asma Ibrahim said that he is a historian and classical archaeologist by training, who joined the Aga Khan Museum from the University of Oxford where he taught, curated collections and managed capital projects at the Ashmolean Museum from 1994 to 2012. Educated at Harvard and Oxford, he served as curator of Greek coins and university lecturer in Greek numismatics at the University of Oxford.

The Aga Khan Museum offers visitors a window into worlds unknown or unfamiliar: the artistic, intellectual, and scientific heritage of Muslim civilisations across the centuries from the Iberian Peninsula to China. Its mission is to foster a greater understanding and appreciation of the contribution that Muslim civilisations have made to world heritage.

Dr Kim believes that in order to generate interest and connect with people museums today need to reinvent themselves and be brave about it. They need to be interactive. “Earlier, museums were only expected to display artefacts, but now they need to interact,” he said. “Over the past 20 years I have spent in museums I have torn them down and built them up again.”

The Aga Khan Museum, he said, was opened some three years ago and it stands apart from other traditional museums because of its architecture. “Prince Karim Aga Khan wrote to its architect Fumihiko Maki a five-page letter about how he wanted it built around the principle of light,” he shared. “And so instead of having box-like rooms there are galleries which open to each other. They are interlinked,” he said.

“He wanted it used as an educational institution too, and not just a place for housing artefacts. It was meant to spread an understanding of Muslims and Islam because there are more misconceptions about Islam today than there were 25 years ago,” he explained. “So let’s do it through the medium of art where seeing an object would be an educational experience,” he said.

“Canada has a different outlook about Muslims, different than America. Canada is the bastion of open-mindedness. So as you look at Muslim art over the years, you get to know who Muslims are and were,” he said.

“The Aga Khan Museum is not just a place for visual arts but performing arts as well, offering music, art, film. It also includes an auditorium. So we are an art museum with a spectacular collection which lets you explore culture connections and diversity,” he said, while also mentioning his previous job at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, which being built in 1683, happens to be the oldest museum of the world.

“I am working at the youngest museum of the world and I have worked at the oldest museum of the world,” he pointed out, saying that he managed to change the ethos of Ashmolean Museum.

Reinventing museums, according to Dr Kim, requires several things, one of which is “inspired design.” Taking the example of the State Bank Museum in Karachi, he said that just showcasing coins would have been boring but they have designed the display very creatively by presenting coins through the years. Similarly, he said that at Kensington Palace in England they have an exhibit of dresses over the years, thus helping people connect to fashion. Another example that he mentioned was arms and armour exhibition at Glasgow Museum, which offers the opportunity to study design.

“New ideas are also needed to reinvent museums, as museums are driven more by ideas and design,” said Dr Kim, while adding relevance, reflection and creativity to his list. He said that after Canada’s accepting so many refugees from Syria, it was relevant to have a living history section at the Aga Khan Museum to show people the arts of Syria going back to various periods and civilisations.

“Syria has a very rich culture and we wanted to build an understanding among Canadians about them through their culture,” he concluded.

Published in Dawn, October 20th, 2017