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Knox College at the University Of Toronto was my gateway drug into cloisters.


Then came years in England exploring the monastic ruins and cathedrals of the North. Their cloisters often hosted a tea shop where – especially on rainy days – you wrap your head around the solidity of being inside a stone hallway while facing so many windowless arches that you are simultaneously outside. Cloisters are the parallel universes of the medieval world.


So, when I visited the Aga Khan Museum this summer, I stumbled joyfully into a new Toronto cloister. Complete with tea shop. Obviously I had to stop.


The museum is a great addition to the city’s architecture. Unlike the ROM Crystal, the Aga Khan should age well. Its grounds are an OCD dream and the exterior itself is so plain and minimalist it will be hard to date in the future.


The interior, like the cloisters, are an ultra-modern take on classic Islamic architecture. The cloisters stand as a courtyard in the middle of the building. A glassed-in space open to the sky, with Islamic designs etched into the walls. Like the western cloisters and courtyards I’m used to, the space is both interior and open. It’s modern and old. And it’s a piece of another culture in the middle of a major western city. Everything about it is an inviting paradox.

The museum collection itself is small, but beautiful. Unlike most museums where I see artifacts from our common western culture, and can imagine them in use, these objects are alien and challenging. I don’t know what they are, who used them, or what they mean. But that meant I spent more time reading those little museum cards I normally skip past, learning about a new world. Not knowing the cultural meanings of the collection also meant I could appreciate their artistry rather than having a historical monologue running in my head.


Maybe that’s a profoundly Orientalist statement to make. But what I like the best about the Aga Khan Museum is that it’s absolutely not Orientalist. It’s not the Islamic floor of the Met, or the British Museum, or the Louvre. These items didn’t end up in the museum as the leftovers of an imperial adventure. Nor are they explained by a museum curator named Johnson, Smith, or Dubois. The entire museum is an exercise in cultural outreach from one world to another. And, of course, could only be founded in Canada.