ISLAMIC ARTS MUSEUM MALAYSIA CELEBRATES 20th ANNIVERSARY BY LAUNCHING SCHOLAR'S LIBRARY
British Museum honors 40-year old Albukhary Foundation with a gallery in its name
Kuala Lumpur, 14 December 2018. The Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia today kicked off its 20th Anniversary celebrations with the launch of its Scholar’s Library by Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
The museum opened its door to the public in December 1998, at the behest of Tun Dr Mahathir during his first term as prime minister. When he launched IAMM then, the prime minister was quoted as having said: “I did not expect such a beautiful building, and I did not think it was within his (Syed Mokhtar Albukary) means to build something of that scale.”
IAMM is one of two flagship projects of the Albukhary Foundation, a private international charity founded by Syed Mokhtar Albukhary in 1976. The function today is also a celebration of the Albukhary Foundation’s 40th anniversary. Like the founder, the Albukhary Foundation has gone places without losing sight of its roots: its Malaysia origin and Islamic faith that transcends borders.
Under the directorship of Syed Mohamad Albukhary, IAMM has had a flying start. The launch of the Scholar’s Library 20 years on moves it up a few notches.
“Galleries are the face of a museum, visual memory banks that trace the evolution and achievements of a culture or country,” says Dr Heba Nayel Barakat, head of curatorial affairs at IAMM. “The library, on the other hand, is the brain. It provides context to collections. We refer to books and manuscripts when curating exhibitions and developing explanatory panels for exhibits.
“Any decent museum must have a decent library. Our Scholar’s Library is comparable to the best in the world. We have more than 20,000 titles, which includes 3,000 rare, out of print books. Users don gloves to prevent wear and tear. Our reference materials – encyclopedias, collector’s editions, photographs and audio visual materials – are bought from reputable auction houses to ensure their authenticity and chain of custody. Islamic references are a depleting resource, because of demand from rich countries. They are also victims of war.
“The Scholar’s Library uses the Library of Congress cataloguing system and OPAC search engine. This makes it accessible to researchers from anywhere in world. We welcome outsiders to use our resources, and have already hosted local as well as international researchers.”
The IAMM Scholar’s Library is set to become an important link in knowledge sharing of Islamic history, arts, culture and civilizations as well as other related disciplines. It will also bring IAMM closer to the realization of Syed Mokhtar’s vision: “The contents of the museum are of undeniable beauty, but what excites me is their value in expanding knowledge and diminishing intolerance.”
Over the years, IAMM has built a diverse collection of Islamic artifacts, 2,500 on display and another 10,000 in storage. It is also notable for its Southeast Asian collection. This has positioned IAMM well as an ambassador of Islamic art.
“At IAMM, we organise an average of six exhibitions a year, and they attract thousands of visitors from all walks of life, age groups, ethnicities and nationalities. Our exhibitions aim to transport visitors to the grandeur, grace and global reach of Islam over the past 1,500 years or so. We hope our exhibitions make Muslims proud of their heritage, while dispelling prejudices that exist among non Muslims with regard to Islam in the world today,” says Dr Heba.
Some IAMM exhibitions have travelled abroad, to Europe, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Australia. By the same token, IAMM has received travelling exhibitions from abroad. The net result is inter-museum collaborations that have created heightened awareness of Islamic art around the world.
A collaboration that has worked out rather well is the one with the British Museum in London. Very much an untold story in Malaysia is the unveiling of the Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World on 16 October 2018.
It is regarded a coup of sorts with big news coverage in the UK. It represents a high point in the 20 year history of IAMM. It is also a high point in the Albukhary Foundation’s 40-year history as an international charity.
Dr Heba shares the story: “It came to the attention to our director Syed Mohamad that the Islamic Gallery in the British Museum lay hidden in one of the lower levels. He recognised its potential to ignite greater appreciation of Islamic art, culture and civilization if given a prominent location in the well-patronised British Museum. Leveraging on past IAMM-British Museum collaborations, he approached the authorities for a better space. He succeeded in securing two galleries in the heart of the museum, in a heavy traffic zone on the first floor. Over three years, he worked meticulously with the IAMM team to bring the display to life upstairs.”
Renovation and refurbishment of the expanded was sponsored by the Albukhary Foundation, and in recognition, the British Museum named it “The Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World”. In October 2018, the gallery was launched, with an IAMM-curated exhibition from Malaysia brought on a long term loan. It is a proud achievement for Malaysia, to have a gallery named after a Malaysian charity in the distinguished British Museum.
The Albukhary Foundation’s other flagship project is the Albukhary International University in Syed Mokhtar’s hometown of Alor Setar. While IAMM is about preserving Islamic heritage, AiU, established in 2011, is about creating opportunities and building sustainable communities.
Located in the Sharifah Rokiah Centre of Excellence, named in honor of his mother, AiU is a non profit private institution of higher learning. Its primary focus is to deliver a well-rounded education to high achieving students from poor or displaced families.
Oversight of AiU currently rests with Sharifah Sofia Albukhary, the founder’s daughter who did a stint at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. She says, “My father fervently believes education is the answer to many problems in the world today – poverty, unemployment, poor leadership, prejudice, even greed. He sees education as a great equalizer because it gives the poor the opportunity to improve their socio-economic status. At the same time, my father sees it as a way to nurture talented youths with good character, equipped with 5Aas – adab, akhlak, akidah, amanah and amalan - to become change agents in their respective communities.
“The founder’s definition of education is also broad. It covers the acquisition of knowledge and skills sets, good conduct, humility, faith and compassion, all of which are encompassed in the 5As.
“Most importantly, he hopes recipients of the Albukhary Scholarship Program will in turn help others in need, creating a ripple effect in every corner of the globe,” says Sofia.
After some teething problems, AiU will receive a fresh intake of undergraduate students in 2019 at its school of business and school of education. The courses are designed with emphasis on social entrepreneurship, with a suite of courses and curriculum structure that will enhance their employability.
At this stage, in alignment of the founder’s intention of social inclusion in higher education, students are on full Albukary scholarships that cover tuition fees, on-campus accommodation and a monthly allowance. “We are in the midst of fine tuning our selection process to ensure that only deserving, high achieving students from marginalized communities are granted this scholarship,” says Sharifah Sofia. “As an international university, we target a student population that is 80 per cent international: and 20 per cent Malaysian. The medium of instruction here is English.”
Community service is an integral part of their course, with undergraduates volunteering at welfare facilities on the grounds of the Sharifah Rokiah Centre of Excellence or in the neighborhood. Within walking distance of Aiu is Albukhary Mosque, an orphanage, a dialysis centre for the poor, a centre for special needs, a souk and a cemetery.
The Albukhary Scholarship program precedes AiU. When launched in 2005, scholars were initially placed in public universities, especially the International Islamic University Malaysia. To date, more than 500 high achievers from more than 45 countries have graduated, and contributed to their respective communities. Today, some are diplomats, high ranking government officials and businessmen.
IAMM and AiU are the twin pillars of the Albukhary Foundation. They represent a consolidation of resources to maximize its reach and impact on the ground. Between these two pillars is a gamut of other initiatives undertaken in the interest of creating a more equitable and just world.
Many of them are education-related, for example, the Albukhary Tuition Program that dates back to 2001. It is a Malaysia-wide remedial tuition program to prepare underachieving poor rural students for national examinations. Between 2001 and 2009, it impacted 45,000 students from 500 schools, after which, this program was adopted by the public sector.
Every so often, the Albukhary Foundation responds to calls for help after natural disasters and other calamities. Since its formation, it has responded to earthquake survivor appeals in Iran, China and Japan; humanitarian aid programs for Afghan, Syrian and Palestinian refugees, displaced Yemenis, Somalis, Sudanese and South Sudanese and Cambodians; built an orphanage for tsunami survivors in Aceh; responded to appeals for flood victims in Malaysia; built and refurbished mosques in Malaysia and India; sponsored hospitals in Uganda; sponsored religious education in Australia… the list goes on and on.
Most heart warming is the Hajj program, which gives poor Muslims in rural Malaysia the opportunity to perform the Hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam. It is the dream of every Muslim to journey to Mecca to perform the Hajj one day. The Albukhary Foundation’s Hajj program has benefited hundreds of Muslim community leaders (imams, tok siak and the like) who are without means, yet highly invaluable to mosques. Between 1996 and 2016, the foundation has sponsored 927 deserving pilgrims from across Malaysia.
Forty years on, the Albukhary Foundation has touched the lives of thousands directly and indirectly. “It is my humble wish to serve others in my own small way,” says Syed Mokhtar.
“I think it has to do with my upbringing. My mother taught her children that nothing is yours until you have given it away with all your heart in the hope it will make someone’s life easier. This is the very spirit in which the Albukhary Foundation operates.”