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In Conversation with Konrad Ng

Konrad Ng, the Executive Director of Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design recently spoke at MuseumNext Australia. Konrad is doing some incredible work with his institution in Hawaii, we caught up with him to find out more about his work.

Konrad Ng

You’re the Executive Director of Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design, can you tell us a little about your museum?
Shangri La is a museum for learning about the global culture of Islamic art and design through exhibitions, digital initiatives, interactive guided tours, and education and public programs that feature the global voices and work of visiting artists and scholars. Tours are only available through a partnership with the Honolulu Museum of Art.

The museum is housed on the former estate of American philanthropist Doris Duke (1912-1993) and represents the architectural traditions and cultural histories of North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia.

While we are based in Honolulu, Hawaii, Shangri La is a program of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation (DDCF) through the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, which is based in New York City. The DDCF was created to fulfil Doris Duke’s wish that her estate be used to improve the quality of people’s lives through grants supporting the performing arts, environmental conservation, medical research and child well-being, and through the preservation of the cultural and environmental legacy of two of her properties: Shangri La Museum and Duke Farms.

How do you think your approach differs from other museums?
What attracted me to Shangri La was the opportunity to enrich the museum’s curatorial, educational and programmatic work beyond the lens of Doris Duke’s life. While we strive to honor her story, Duke intended Shangri La to be a site-specific engagement with a fluid set of Islamic worlds. Because of its eclectic design and collection, Shangri La presents a fantastic opportunity to pose questions about borders and cultural braiding, orientalism and self-orientalization, and other framings that cast a critical lens on the knowledge formations of “Islamic art and design.”

Shangri La is in an unique position where we can and should flip the script on ourselves–and on the role of museums more generally–as a way to be “woke” about what we do. Recognizing intersectionality is part of this process; we start programs and exhibitions by discussing the global power/knowledge vectors that run throughout our collection, our role as a museum, our place in Hawaii’s indigenous host culture, and privilege community engagement to entangle perspectives.

So, we will be open to hosting Palestinian American poet, Naomi Shihab Nye, and ask her to share work that makes connections between our collection, Doris Duke, and African American and Palestinian youth. I like to think that Shangri La is part of a broader museum moment and movement that may be characterized by innovation, inclusivity and self-critique.


How has the current political climate in the United States effected the way your museum is perceived and your work?
The current political climate has reaffirmed the importance of having a museum where the public can access Islamic art, culture and design in engaging ways – especially teachers looking for resources to supplement discussions about a “Muslim Ban,” the “Alt-Right” or “Fake News.”

Museums have the opportunity to push back on what feels like the coarsening of civility in public life, the erosion of democratic norms in our politics, and a concerted effort to undermine safe spaces on the basis of race, gender and sexuality. Museums must create welcoming spaces for dialogue and encourage empathy through their work.

For Shangri La, this means curating exhibitions and programs that offer opportunities for community engagement. empathy, resilience and inspiration.

You’re speaking at MuseumNext Australia in March 2018, what can delegates expect from your presentation? 
I am grateful and excited about the opportunity to speak at MuseumNext Australia and join such an incredible group! I have much to learn from everyone who will be attending.

I hope folks will be prompted to think about how intersectionality can be part of museum work by challenging us to think about the dynamics of cultural power and cultural politics. I hope that we can collectively work to empower both the museums, and the communities they represent and serve, to enhance cross-cultural understanding, nurture civic engagement through the arts, and offer new spaces for collaborative problem solving.

Truthfully, though, I just hope folks will find my session interesting enough to stay awake! Certainly, my time zone will be off!

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