The Museum Without Walls | The Ismaili Canada

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The Museum Without Walls

Pandemic brings new ways to enjoy the Aga Khan Museum

Published August 23, 2021
A behind-the-scenes look at Suba and Trichy Sankaran’s performance for the Lapis Digital Benefit. Photo: Craig Colby/Aga Khan Museum

When a global pandemic was declared in March 2020, the Aga Khan Museum saw an opportunity amid the lockdown: it could reach a global audience through virtual offerings. 

“Nothing replaces the in-person experience at the museum, from the exhibits to the beauty of the building,” says Moyez Jadavji, chief operating officer at the Aga Khan Museum. “[But] we can now provide possibilities which we never would have thought of before.”

In April 2020, the #MuseumWithoutWalls opened its doors. For the first time, visitors didn’t have to be in Toronto to get a peek at the Aga Khan Museum’s latest exhibition or attend a live performance by an international musician. The #MuseumWithoutWalls initiative has turned the traditional museum experience virtual. Online visitors can tour exhibits, tune into chats with curators, attend courses and lectures, participate in art activities and puzzles with their children and watch virtual shows. 

The Moon: A Voyage Through Time exhibition explores the role the moon has played in faith, science and the arts through lunar-inspired artifacts from around the world. Photo: Aly Manji

The #MuseumWithoutWalls’ doors are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The museum estimates over 300,000 people from around the world “stepped in” in 2020. In contrast, 169,000 people visited the physical space in 2019. In addition, more than five million people were exposed to the #MuseumWithoutWalls’ on social media, including digital programming like performances, lectures and objects of the week. 

“This is a great way of keeping up with the arts through a pandemic,” says Nazir Valani, a patron who frequented the museum before the pandemic. Now, he visits the #MuseumWithoutWalls.

When Toronto went into lockdown in March 2020, the museum was set to open the Sanctuary exhibition, which features rugs exploring the concept of safe haven by 36 artists from around the world. The show opened virtually instead, with live online tours on InstagramFacebook Live and Zoom, and a 3-D virtual tour for those looking to meander at their own pace. The museum also made a call out to art lovers, asking them to submit original pictures and short videos representing how they found “sanctuary” during COVID-19 lockdowns. It used the submissions to create a collection of community-generated art, which it displayed when the museum physically reopened and in an online slideshow. 

In the Sanctuary exhibition, 36 leading artists meditated on the theme of sanctuary through traditionally woven rugs. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid/Aga Khan Museum

The #MuseumWithoutWalls showcases the museum’s permanent collection through The Public Curates, a series of videos in which members of the public talk about their favourite piece in the collection. Other exhibitions, including Caravans of Gold: Fragments in Time and The Moon: A Voyage through Time, are also available online.  

Through virtual festivals and twice-weekly pocket performances streamed on Facebook Live and posted on the museum’s website, viewers can enjoy performances by musiciansdancers, comedians and more. During the museum’s annual flamenco festival, a cast of Toronto flamenco musicians and dancers turned the museum's galleries and hallways into their stage for a digital performance. In previous years, such performances would typically have been limited to one space, or the auditorium. 

The Lapis Ball, a gala hosted annually by Prince Amyn Aga Khan, also went virtual in 2020. Reinvented as the Lapis Digital Benefit, the free online event raised $183,000 more than in 2019, when 350 guests attended a ticketed gala in Toronto. For the digital event, six performers and nine panelists, including an Arab hip hop artist, one of the world's top guitarists and a visual-artist-cum-scientist, explored the idea of "the museum as a cultural sanctuary." Over 15,000 people from 40 countries tuned in.

After the first COVID-19 lockdown was lifted, the museum reopened with COVID-19 safety precautions and Rebuild 2020, a reimagined slate of programming for the pandemic year. “The world has changed, and so have we,” said Henry Kim, then director and chief executive officer of the museum, in a press release. 

Rebuild 2020 aims to connect and offer hope to communities through the arts. Its lineup includes Remastered, a pandemic-inspired exhibition that celebrates the ability of the human spirit to overcome adversity through stories and themes depicted in Persian, Turkish and Mughal Indian manuscript paintings. In a sense, the museum itself has also been remastered in an online space for the post-pandemic world.


The museum installed a pillar notifying visitors of the museum’s safety procedures during the pandemic. Photo: Akbar Dewji
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