Time-Travel on a Streetcar Ticket

5 March 2015 – Nothing to my latest physical walk, just down to the nearest streetcar stop & back — but it takes me to the 9th century and the waters of the Indian Ocean, just off Indonesia’s Belitung Island.

All because I first let that streetcar ride take me here.

Ismaili Centre and prayer hall, Toronto

More precisely, to the adjacent building, a white granite presence quietly undulating in a winter-white landscape — perhaps an even quieter visual presence, because of the snow, than Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki had intended.

He designed the museum I am about to enter for the first time: Toronto’s new (September 2014) Aga Khan Museum, which describes itself as “the first museum in North America dedicated to the intellectual, cultural and artistic heritage of Muslim civilizations.”

The photo above is of the Ismaili Centre, by Indian architect Charles Correa, with that dramatic dome rising above its enclosed prayer hall. These two buildings are part of the same $30o-million complex, complete with gardens and reflecting pools, all on a 7-Ha site site selected back in 2002. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper opened the complex last September in the presence of the Aga Khan, who personally and through the Aga Khan Foundation drove the project.

I pull on the museum door and think, I truly have no idea what to expect. I don’t know anything about any of this. I am eager for the experience, but ignorant, and on top of that still mildly jangled from the hour-long, winter-roads trip to get here.

Inside the door, I am immediately at peace, soothed, calm, and welcome. Quiet architecture, a sense of space, and light. I am drawn to the inner courtyard, as I am surely meant to be.

inner courtyard in the museum, open to sky; museum architect Fumihiko Maki

It is enclosed on all four sides, its glass walls etched with mashrabiya patterns, but open to the sky. Even on this flat, grey day, light floods down into the space and radiates across the ticket booth, coatcheck, classrooms and café that surround it. I step into it for a moment, tilt my head to the sky.

Then I enter the main-level permanent collections.

I wait for a tour guide to finish her opening remarks in the entrance hallway. She is speaking Canadian English to the fashionably dressed matrons in her group; they obviously understand, but murmur among themselves in European French. (I am guessing Paris, simply because of their soigné clothes & manners.)

They move on. I pause, to allow the changing imagery on the wall to walk me away from my own 21st-c. reality into other times, other realities.

entrance to permanent collection, Aga Khan Museum

Perhaps it is my weekly presence in the AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario) that makes me so alert to how museums now present themselves to the public. Does the building itself help or hinder my interaction with the art? Does it make me want to linger, or move on? And does the arrangement of the displays help me engage and linger?

This space works very well for me.

permanent collections, Aga Khan Museum

Open, peaceful, easy to navigate, inviting my attention. Deliberately spare, an aesthetic choice rather than financial constraint. Just a glimpse from here of the second level at the far end, which houses temporary exhibitions and where (unlike here) photography is not permitted.

I hear more French as I move about, Chinese, also Spanish, and of course English.

Skylights bring in yet more light at that far, clerestory end.

skylights into the Aga Khan Museum

And so, quiet and happy, I stop to admire the artefacts.

This page of leaves, for example — a leaf of leaves — from the 13th-c. Khawass al-Ashjar (The Characteristics of Trees), possibly from Iraq.

leaf from the Khawass al-Ashjar

And this graceful, 10th-c. glass mausoleum or mosque lamp from Iran, each ribbon of ornamental glass ending in an eye to hold a supporting chain.

mosque or mausoleum glass lamp

And this candlestick base, about which I’d tell you more if I’d remembered to take notes! You will have to enjoy it, without scholarship, for its inherent beauty. [Later verified: 12th c., eastern Iran]

candlestick base, Aga Khan Museum

I am particularly taken with the frieze of tiny animals, top and bottom. Lions?

candlestick detail

Delicate tracery on the translucent gallery walls to one side, providing a perfect backdrop for this 17th-c. Safavid standard, or ‘Alam, from Iran.

Safavid standard, Aga Khan Museum

Upstairs next, to visit the temporary exhibitions, where my time-travel takes me to the 9th-c. Maritime Silk Route through the Indian Ocean.

The show, The Lost Dhow, displays the cargo of an Arab vessel that foundered in the 9th century and was rediscovered late in the 20th. This cargo, wonderfully unplundered, is the earliest evidence to date of a maritime trading route that thrived long before the arrival of the Portuguese traders — silver ingots, bronze mirrors, jars once filled with spices, intricate objects of gold & silver, and thousands of bowls & ewers.

Next door, Visions of Mughal India, paintings lovingly collected by British artist Howard Hodgkin, plus some of his own work, clearly influenced by long exposure to the art, culture & geography of the subcontinent he so loves.

Finally downstairs again, for a latte and walnut-filled treat in the café next to those shimmering courtyard walls, a browse through the gift shop, and out.

Into the falling snow! As predicted. Just flurries, but they blur the sky, and play their way along the dome of the prayer hall next door.

snow flurries on the dome of the Ismaili prayer hall, in the Centre next to the Aga Khan Museum

I’m coming back next week for a lecture on exhibition design.

After that, I think, I’ll time my next visit for spring …

… when the fir trees will shed their winter burlap, and the gardens and reflecting pools (work of Lebanese landscape architect Vladimir Djurovic) will begin to dance with the returning warmth.

As will we all.







Leave a comment


  1. Gold colours feel so warm to your outside captures…cool space Penny.

  2. Great post. I would love to go there.

  3. bobgeor

     /  6 March 2015

    It’s such a great space. I fully enjoyed my first tour through it. I look forward to coming back when spring hits as well.


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    "Traveller, there is no path. Paths are made by walking" -- Antonio Machado (1875-1939)

    "The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes" -- Marcel Proust (1871-1922)

    "A city is a language, a repository of possibilities, and walking is the act of speaking that language, of selecting from those possibilities" -- Rebecca Solnit, "Wanderlust: A History of Walking"

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