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Co-Curating Hidden Stories of the Silk Roads, Dr. Filiz Çakır Phillip & Dr. Suzanne Conklin Akbari

Hidden Stories: Books Along the Silk Roads is a groundbreaking exhibition at Aga Khan Museum which opened on October 9, 2021 and closes on February 27, 2022. The exhibition is available to view and experience online.

As you explore Hidden Stories: Books Along the Silk Roads, you encounter 1000 years of history, including books, scrolls, manuscript paintings, and textiles that shaped — not just documented — life along one of history’s most important trade networks and beyond.

Though Hidden Stories examines a vast network of trade routes spanning Asia, Europe, and Africa, each of its historical artifacts comes from an Ontario-based collection. Featured in the exhibition are rarely displayed works from the Aga Khan Museum’s permanent Collection along with objects generously loaned by the Royal Ontario Museum, the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, Western University, and the Marshall and Marilyn R. Wolf Collection.

Dala’il al-Khayrat Prayer book, probably Kashmir, 13.6 x 8.5 x 2 cm, dated A.H. Muharram 1233/AD November 1818, lacquer binding; opaque watercolour, ink, and gold on paper, © The Aga Khan Museum


Considered on their own, each of these works sheds light onto a time and place in history. From a 1,000-year-old prayer sheet from northwestern China to a five-metre-long Iranian scroll of the Qur’an, or a richly coloured Jewish marriage contract from 19th-century Greece, each of these artistic marvels tells a story about the community where it originated as well as their links with other cultures. Assembled together, they tell vivid, soaring stories about the intercultural exchange of technology, art, and ideas, the ingenuity of human beings, and a millennia-old worldwide love affair with books that continues today.

Quran 18thc, Harar Ethiopia Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library


We talk to Co-curatorsDr. Filiz Çakır Phillip, Aga Khan Museum, and Dr. Suzanne Conklin Akbari, Institute for Advanced Study (Princeton, N.J.) about the concept and intention behind the exhibition, the diverse cultures along the silk route, digital curating and thoughts on the future of exhibiting Islamic art, culture and heritage.

Filiz Çakır Phillip (FCP), Aga Khan Museum - replies in green Suzanne Conklin Akbari (SCA), Institute for Advanced Study- replies in blue How did the concept behind Hidden Stories: Books Along the Silk Roads exhibition develop?

FCP: The Aga Khan Museum has been working in partnership with the Book and Silk Roads (BSR) research group of the University of Toronto since 2017. With international art shipping restrictions, due to Covid-19, we decided to conceptualize an exhibition to share the research results of BSR’s international cutting-edge scholarship, while at the same time emphasizing the treasures of Ontario.

Akber Dewji


SCA: Our ‘Old Books, New Science’ research group based at the University of Toronto had long been hoping that we might find a way to connect our Mellon-funded ‘Book and the Silk Roads’ research project with our friends at the Aga Khan Museum, and an opportunity arose — due to the pandemic — to put together an exhibition that would be at once local and global: global in the scope of the objects assembled there, but local in being drawn from collections in southern Ontario. We tell the story of the interconnected premodern past, using the history of the book as our pathway, revealing the ‘hidden stories’ that each object tells.

What were the reasons behind co-curating the exhibition?

FCP: Co-curation is a wonderful way of representing our partnership with UofT’s BSR research group.

SCA: Two main reasons: first, we were eager to partner with the Aga Khan Museum as part of a larger effort to connect our research group at the University of Toronto with cultural heritage institutions in the region; second, we saw this as a wonderful opportunity to translate the specialized work on book history that is carried out by university researchers, curators, scientists and engineers into a material, vivid, personal form that would speak to a broader public.

Why did you want to tell the historical story of the Silk Route?

FCP: The collaboration between BSR and the Museum pivoted around the production of books and manuscripts along the Silk Roads, including the used materials and technologies. Creating awareness around this research in the context of globalism and intercultural crossroads for the general public through an exhibition was evident.

SCA: We wanted to not only tell the story of the historical “Silk Roads” — routes of trade and exchange that linked East Asia and Europe for hundreds of years — but also evoke the metaphorical ‘silk roads,’ that is, the wider currents that cross both land and sea to connect people, objects, craft practices, and ideas.

Qur'an Anthology, China, 27.5 x 20 cm, second half of the 18th century, ink, opaque watercolour, and gold on paper, AKM824, © The Aga Khan Museum