The founder of Australia’s first Islamic museum Moustafa Fahour was a banker with no background in museums, curation or building design but he wasn’t going to let that get in the way of his dream. He and his wife Maysaa developed the idea for the museum to educate the public about their religion after seeing television news programs linking Islam to terrorism and oppression.
Moustafa is the author of Boundless Plains: The Australian Muslim Connection and The Journey: Establishing Australia’s First Islamic Museum. We talked to Moustafa abut the intention behind building the museum, why nurturing creative talent is important and the future of The Islamic Museum Australia.
You have over 15 years of experience in the banking, construction and management industries. Why did you have a career change and what inspired you to be interested in specifically Islamic arts and culture?
I have been truly blessed and grateful to have an incredible corporate career that is now with well over 20 years of experience with some of the worlds and Australia’s largest corporations. Being an Australian born, Arab background and a proud Muslim, I never experienced the rise of Islamophobia many did during the last 12 years or so in Australia, however the experience was horrific for many Muslims.
I vividly remember the moment when I thought enough was enough. My wife, Maysaa, and I had just sat through a television segment linking Islam to terrorism and oppression. Just like that, the desire to counter this myth became my number-one priority. I knew that getting frustrated was not enough because passive reactions do not bring about lasting change. I needed an idea that was both constructive and sustainable.
After a week of nightly discussions with my wife, the idea finally blossomed one particular evening. ‘We need a place that portrays truer representation of Islam – a place people can visit,’ I said to Maysaa, after putting our two young children to sleep. ‘I’m tired of the media’s relentless and negative focus on Islam, as if it is incompatible with the rest of the world and the source of tension and conflict,’ I lamented. Together we both realised that education was the solution.
As we further investigated the idea, it became apparent Muslims in Australia lacked a cultural institution that allowed people to enter into the world of Islam in a gentle, non-intrusive manner. While we have successfully built mosques, schools and other community organisations, none of these had the requisite look, feel and resources to educate the masses about Islam and Muslims. Something completely new was required. At the time, I was already a small collector of Islamic Art. I loved how the beauty of Islam and God’s creation could be shared through creative expression. Somehow there had to be a link between this love of Islamic Art and the educational solution my wife and I were seeking.
A clearer image formed in my mind. What I was looking for was a museum. Enthused, I spoke to Maysaa about the idea. Such a museum would have educative potential and showcase the beauty of Islam through the Arts and that’s how the journey began.
How did the Islamic Museum of Australia develop from idea to execution?
That’s an interesting question that even sometimes now I look back and just wonder how it all happened, seems surreal. Through my corporate experience, I knew one thing for sure: if the Museum was going to be built, I needed the right team in place. As a Muslim, I believe firmly that teamworkis ordained in Islam. As Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) once said: Faithful believers are to each other as the bricks of a wall, supporting and reinforcing oneanother.
The support from my wife, my parents and family was incredible and a real driving force to help make this idea reality. In the background, Maysaa’s steadfast support for me was invaluable. Her words of comfort and support during troubled times fuelled my drive, commitment and resilience. The late nights, struggles to raise millions of dollars and sacrificing time with family and friends would often take a toll on me. I needed encouragement and affirmation. I needed a person to confide in. Maysaa was there, steady, unwavering. Like her, my parents where a source of advice and inspiration. Without their collective support, the Museum might simply have been another good idea unrealised.
I knew I needed a team of like minded professionals, and I was blessed to hand pick an incredible team who helped me establish the idea to a reality. A year later, we had an incorporated organisation and an old water bottle warehouse in Thornbury. But the Museum seemed like a distant reality for me. I had just quit my corporate job to devote my time entirely to its cause. In a flash, I had gone from the high-flying corporate world of 101 Collins Street in Melbourne to working in a one-man dusty office.
Uncertainty. If there was one word that best described the look on the faces of the Museum team at the outset, this was it. How does one even begin to design a museum, let alone the first Islamic museum in Australia? Passion on its own was not going to be enough. We needed to operationalise our vision and produce a blueprint for the journey. No one could foresee, however, the sheer mountain of work and obstacles that we would face.
Given the scale of the task, we decided early on that dealing with the here and now was
the best way to proceed. We started with a vision, mission statement, key objectives and
operational model, the very same ones that continue to guide the Museum today and into
the future. Following this, came the need to visualise the Museum’s look, feel and content.
In our bid to produce a state-of-the-art facility, we knew that we had to learn from other
leading Museums worldwide.
It was not long before the search had begun for an architect and gallery designers. What made the search challenging was that we needed specialists in museum design and architects who understood how Islamic design principles could be meshed with distinctively Australian themes in building design. And it was all go from that point.
What was the intention behind the Islamic Museum of Australia, what do you hope it brings to communities in Australia?
The Museum started as a humble idea. I wished simply to help Australian society better understand Islam and the contributions of Muslims to the building of our nation. So, I dreamt up a solution but never fathomed the journey that would lie ahead: one that turned out to be painstaking, exciting and enriching all at once; a journey that enabled me to engage with the broader community beyond my wildest dreams.
Among its many purposes, a museum aims to preserve and advance knowledge, empowering people through understanding. The world needs to better understand Islam and Muslims. The Islamic Museum of Australia serves that need, now and, hopefully, into the future.
You work with artists and creatives across the world, why do you think nurturing talent is important?
We have so many creatives and artists around the world and what’s critical is nurturing them. By establishing the IMA, we hoped it would provide a platform to support them in Australia and continue to deliver such amazing and outstanding creative and artistic work that showcases the beauty, provides discussions and educates society. Not just through the IMA and its exhibitions, however we also offer support grants to individuals to continue to support them on the journey in social cohesion and community harmony.
As well as highlighting the arts and culture of Islam, do you think the museum has the capacity to build cultural understanding and social cohesion?
I truly believe, and research conducted by a major University of the IMA had shown that through Art and Culture, we can help build cultural understanding and social cohesion. The IMA is a perfect example of this. With over 80% of visitors that are non-Muslims, and majority school children, our aim is to use the Art, Heritage and the Discovery of Islam to showcase the beauty and factual information to help break stereotypes and provide a transparent window of Islam.
The Museum is the first Australian cultural institution of its kind and showcases the rich artistic heritage and historical contributions of Muslims in Australia and abroad. It consists of five permanent galleries: Islamic Art, Islamic Architecture, Australian Muslim History, Islamic
Faith, and Islamic Contributions to Civilisation. The Museum also hosts visiting exhibitions that often promote new and established Islamic artists, both local and international. The Museum offers visitors a unique cross-cultural and educational journey, delivering fascinating insights into the world of Islam and Muslims through interpretive Museum architecture and design that reflects the Australian Muslim experience. Situated in one of the true multicultural hubs of the world, Melbourne, Australia, it provides a space for people from different backgrounds to engage in a conversation with Muslims about Islam.
What facilities does the museum provide its communities? How did the museum respond to the COVID-19 pandemic?
Community responsibilities is also a core foundation that the Museum works tireless to support the community in many different way, and the Pandemic was just one example. The IMA lead the initiative with a number of Faith and multicultural organisations in support of the outbreak in North and West of Victoria. It played a critical role in establish a community outreach call hub across 5 locations. Its role was to provide support, access and information for the community during this outbreak. The Community Outreach Hub had reached over 100,000 people during a 4-week campaign, organized food, and activity deliveries to those impacted by COVID-19. It also led a call out to the Government on behalf of many community organisations to allocate sufficient vaccine doses to the most impacted areas in the North and West and the opening of trusted community sensitive Vaccination hubs for culturally sensitive communities. The IMA itself became a vaccination centre with private rooms and providing over 1200 vaccinations in less than 5 days in partnership with the State Government of Victoria.
What do you hope the legacy of the museum is?
My hope is that the IMA continues to strive and deliver its mission and that’s to provide educational and cross-cultural experiences and showcase the artistic and cultural heritage of Muslims in Australia and in Islamic societies abroad. To foster community harmony and facilitate an understanding of the values and contributions of Muslims to Australian society.
Why are museums important and necessary for the future?
Museums are important spaces that can preserve, document and showcase its objectives. As for the IMA, it’s a cultural institution to showcase and preserve the arts, history, culture and rich heritage that Muslims and Islamic societies have brought to the world and more importantly Australia.
What are your thoughts on existing museums that have Islamic art collections in the West? Do you think they accurately reflect and represent Islamic culture?
I believe everyone has a role to play in society in helping in the collections of Islamic Art, even in the West. Whatever it takes, it’s a collective effort and we all try our best to represent and reflect the Islamic Culture. Some succeed better than others, while some focus on certain niches. The key element is that the more that do it, the more the people can learn, understand, discover and make their own educated understanding.
Do you think it is important for communities to have ownership of their own stories? How does the museum facilitate this?
Yes, I really do! This is critical as it will provide a much better and accurate understanding from people of that community. We at the IMA do not believe we are the experts in everyhting, rather we partner with the experts and communities involved to deliver a story. Partnerships and collaborations are the most critical element to our success.
Does the Islamic Museum of Australia have specialist curators?
Yes we do, we have aour Collection and Conservation Manager, who is responsible for the art department and research activities at the Museum. His role includes curatorial work, exhibition management and collections care and conservation. Mahmoud has a PhD in Cultural Materials Conservation from the University of Melbourne and a Bachelor in Conservation from Cairo University- Fayoum Branch. He is a casual lecturer at the Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation. Mahmoud has a long experience in collections care and conservations science both professionally and academically. Throughout his learning journey he has collaborated with and trained in international institutions around the world including the USA, Italy and Egypt
What can people look forward to in the future at the Islamic Museum of Australia?
The IMA is currently upgrading its Australian Muslim History permanent gallery, a significant digital and interactive upgrade, including a dedicated online platform that will provide state managers the ability to bring the IMA to the classrooms. It includes virtual tours, curriculum aligned educational programs, the Australian Muslim Identity and much more. A very exciting and innovative initiative that is supported by the Australian Government through the Department of Education. Plus, some new exhibitions, programs and events. It will be an exciting 2022 !
Do you have any advice for someone thinking of building a museum or gallery to highlight Islamic art and culture? What are the benefits and how should they approach the project?
The Museum started as a humble idea. I wished simply to help Australian society better
understand Islam and the contributions of Muslims to the building of our nation. So, I
dreamt up a solution but never fathomed the journey that would lie ahead: one that
turned out to be painstaking, exciting and enriching all at once; a journey that enabled
me to engage with the broader community beyond my wildest dreams.
When I quit the corporate life, albeit temporarily, I dedicated myself wholeheartedly to making the Museum a reality. As with any journey, I faced my fair share of hurdles and setbacks. But a simple mantra I have always lived by pulled me through: take control of what you can, let go of what you can’t. I even stuck these words on my dashboard during the construction process – a timely reminder whenever the going got tough. The approach, always have the right team of people around you!
You are also the author of Boundless Plains: The Australian Muslim Connection and The Journey: Establishing Australia’s First Islamic Museum. Why is it especially important for you to highlight and showcase Australian Muslim History?
Boundless Plains was a very important initiative for me. I believed that if I was going to open a museum that show cases the Australian Muslim History, then I had to experience it myself firsthand, especially before I opened any museum. The second component is that there was very limited information, images, and documentation around it, so I thought this was the perfect opportunity to document the travel through a book and a documentary to showcase across Australia and the world. This project has now been shared via photography exhibition, book sales and documentaries to over 7 countries and across many embassies, classrooms and homes. A book and documentary that documented the Australian Muslim Connection form the beginning to now. I thought this was our small contribution to Australian Muslims and the general public of the Muslim contributions and connections to Australia.
You have achieved much recognition in your career to date, including being recognised with the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) by the Australian Government in 2015, selected as one of The World’s Most Influential Young Arabs under the age of 40, by Arabian Business, the recipient of the distinguished Alumni Award by La Trobe University in 2016 and most recently Highly Commended by the Victorian Government in the Community Response and Recovery Award in 2021. What has been your most memorable moment of your career to date?
I am very humbled to have such recognition from the Australian Government, Victorian Government, La Trobe University, and other organisations. However, like most volunteers, we do this work because we are passionate about change and contributing to our community and society. My work, as with most others, is ultimately driven solely for the pleasure of Allah (SWT) only.
My most memorable moment: There is no doubt, the opening of the IMA is the most memorable moment of my career to date. I am so blessed to have had such a responsibility bestowed upon me. Al hamdollilah.
For more information check out https://www.islamicmuseum.org.au/our-board/
The views of the artists, authors and writers who contribute to Bayt Al Fann do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Bayt Al Fann, its owners, employees and affiliates.