5 February 2018




I danced in a Mongolian yurt.

Come on in! Mongolian Yurt in the Aga Khan Museum's courtyard. Photo courtesy of Julia Zungri.
That’s how I began my afternoon at the Aga Khan Museum to explore the new Listening to Art, Seeing Music exhibition. The exhibition offers multi-sensory experiences through musical soundscapes and video installations placed throughout the museum’s permanent gallery, the Bellerive Room, and Diwan restaurant. The exhibition features Middle Eastern music, instruments, and related artifacts, and explores how this intangible art has changed over time.

Visitors first encounter an eye-opening and very well-written introductory panel in the lobby of the museum. As the introduction begins, it reminds us that this exhibition challenges the conventional thought of museums dealing with stationary, tangible objects, but that intangible arts are just as important and, even more so, are still alive and forming cultural identities and histories around the globe. It challenges us, as visitors, to form a physical relationship with an immaterial artistic expression.

Challenge accepted.

Listening to Art, Seeing Music reminded me that music is an expression that all humans can relate to, which I certainly got the sense of as I entered the highlight of this exhibition: the Mongolian Yurt. The Mongolian Yurt is placed in the museum’s courtyard, which is in the centre of the museum and immediately visible to visitors. A representative at the front desk informed me of programming that would take place in about five minutes, so we decided to check out the Yurt first (its size, beauty and centrality is also incredibly difficult to ignore). In my conventional understanding of museum programming, I expected to hear music, perhaps see live musicians or a museum employee discussing the development of the exhibition.

I was wrong.

As I entered the Yurt, a large circle of museum visitors – who I take it were all strangers at one point – were holding hands and dancing around the centre of the Yurt to traditional French/Welsh folk music. I automatically joined in and had one of the most incredible museum experiences! There were three live musicians; one was leading the circle with an accordion and later facilitated our singing to the music.

The smell, look, and sound that surrounded the Yurt made me realize that this was not going to be a typical museum visit. If this experience was an object, I lived inside of it.

The centre around which we danced; when stranger-visitors became dance partners. Photos courtesy of Julia Zungri.
The interactives were the second highlight of my exhibition experience, which were tied to the new artistic venture, A Hidden Order. This endeavour examines the relationship between art and music, and between traditional Islamic art and the Western contemporary musical composition.

Images from A Hidden Order. Photos courtesy of Julia Zungri.
In a collaborative effort by Musical Forms, a team consisting of composer Lee Westwood and geometer Sama Mara, this installation invites visitors to explore the relationship between artistic patterns and music. I had the pleasure of visiting with a fellow Museum Studies colleague, Sarah Rolko, who can be seen here enjoying making art through music.

Sarah interacting with the installation created by the Musical Forms artistic team. I guarantee this song will get stuck in your head, as it did in ours. Photo and video (below) courtesy of Julia Zungri.

The installations throughout the rest of the museum are a great accompaniment to the permanent galleries as they make the material objects come to life. It is incredibly interesting when we consider how something immaterial can bring something material to life.

Made my Anwar Kebbeh (oud maker, 1975-2000). Collection of Radwan Al Taleb, Damascus, Syria, 1991.

These artifacts and stories tell visitors of the importance, but also destruction of the oud industry in Syria. Photos courtesy of Julia Zungri.
This exhibition made me proud to know that our city is home to this museum and is producing such wonderful experiences. It has reaffirmed my passion for museums, and if this is where the field is heading, count me in.

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