Memories of a nation: a history of the UAE in 15 museums

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Along with the stories and poetry handed down by elders, museums preserve the history of the UAE for future generations. But no single institution can tell the full tale. The view from the mountains of Ras Al Khaimah is different from that in Abu Dhabi or Fujairah. To understand the country in all its diversity you must travel, experiencing the country’s rich heritage as you go. Nick Leech picks some of the best places to begin.

National Museum of Ras Al Khaimah, Al Hisn Road, RAK

Not only does the this museum have some of the UAE’s most intelligently-curated historical, archaeological and ethnographic displays, it also has historic buildings that offer a rare insight into the Gulf’s traditional architecture. Walk into the majlis on the museum’s roof on a hot day and be amazed at what cooling effects can be achieved without air conditioning.

• Visit or call 07 233 3411 for details

Mleiha Archaeological Centre, Mleiha, Sharjah

There are not many places in the UAE that combine a historic landscape, featuring Paleolithic caves and Neolithic tombs, with a state-of-the-art archaeological museum and desert activities such as dune bashing, climbing, stargazing and dining under the stars – but Mleiha manages to do just that.

Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisation, Sharjah

Organised into displays that cover the Islamic faith, science and innovation, coins and art, the thousands of artefacts in this museum illuminate the history of Islam from its earliest origins. Housed in the impressive Souq Al Majarrah building, the highlights of the collection include the Sitara, a curtain that once adorned the door of the Kaaba in Mecca, and a 12th-century incense-burner in the shape of a lion from Khorasan in eastern Iran.

Sharjah Archaeology Museum, Sharjah

For anyone interested in the ancient history of the Emirates, this museum – which celebrates its 24th anniversary this year – is recommended. Featuring finds such as prehistoric stone tools from Jebel Faya, the Sharjah archaeological site that is helping to rewrite our understanding of humanity’s earliest journey out of Africa, as well as an Iron Age ceramic camel statue that sheds light on the antiquity of Arabia’s incense trade, the museum offers insights into the deep history and historical importance of the Arabian peninsula.

Ajman Museum, Ajman City

Housed in a fort that served as the Ruler of Ajman’s palace until 1970, this unexpected gem of a museum contains excellent and varied displays of traditional palm frond housing, boats and furniture. There are usually Emirati elders present who are happy to recount their memories of the old days, and there is a working wind tower in one corner of the fort, where you can sit and experience the wisdom of the Gulf’s traditional architecture first-hand.

Etihad Museum, Dubai

Designed to resemble the manuscript on which UAE’s act of union was signed, the new Etihad Museum stands on the same 2.5-hectare campus as Union House, the building where the act was signed. Using a mixture of documents, photographs and personal belongings, the new museum tells the story of each of the signatories – the rulers of the seven emirates – and also explains the UAE constitution and the rights and responsibilities of Emirati citizens.

Dubai Museum and Al Fahidi Fort, Bur Dubai

Housed in the restored 18th-century Al Fahidi Fort, the Dubai Museum gives visitors the best overview of life in the city at a time when the emirate’s reputation was defined not by shopping malls and hotels but by pearls. With displays dedicated to the pearling industry and to the mercantile city’s maritime past, it also includes objects from Africa and the Indian Ocean, where Dubai merchants traded, showing that the emirate’s role as an international trading hub was already well established before the coming of oil.

Pearl Museum, Dubai Creek

For centuries, the wealth of the Arabian Gulf was measured not in oil but in pearls – and thanks to this museum, it is easy to see why. It contains one of the world’s largest and finest collections of saltwater Gulf pearls, which was donated by Sultan Al Owais, the descendant of a family of pearl merchants and former chairman of the National Bank of Dubai. Housed on the 15th floor of Emirates National Bank of Dubai, the museum overlooks the creek.

Women’s Museum, Deira, Dubai

Founded in 2012, this museum, tucked down an alley near the Gold Souk in Deira, is dedicated to the history and stories of Emirati women. Alongside displays of historic documents, household utensils, clothing and jewellery, there are temporary galleries dedicated to female Emirati artists, as well as an entire floor dedicated to the work of poet Ousha bint Khalifa Al Suwaidi, who was known as the “Girl of Arabs”.

Saruq Al Hadid Archaeological Museum, Shindagha, Dubai

Since the first chance sighting of it from the air in 2002, the 5,000-year-old archaeological site of Saruq Al Hadid, which had been lost for thousands of years, has yielded a treasure trove of more than 12,000 finds. Some of the most remarkable of these, in bronze, iron and gold, are now housed in this museum, which sheds light on an unexpected chapter of Dubai’s ancient history.

Emirates National Auto Museum, Abu Dhabi

If you are venturing south of Abu Dhabi to Liwa, a pit stop at the private car collection of Sheikh Hamad bin Hamdan Al Nahyan is an absolute must. Housed inside a giant pyramid, the display features 200 classic, off-road, military and customised vehicles, dating from the very earliest days of motorised transport to the present day.

UAE Currency Museum, Abu Dhabi

Pre-booking is required if you want to visit this free but little-known museum, housed on the ground floor of the UAE Central Bank. It tells the story of the dirham, which became the UAE’s official currency in 1973, and contains the bank’s collection of notes, coins, commemorative designs and currency machines.

• Open from 9am to 3pm, email or call 02 691 5265 for bookings and more details

Qasr Al Muwaiji, Al Ain

The recently restored birthplace of Sheikh Khalifa, President of the UAE, might be a little light on exhibits, but Qasr Al Muwaiji’s state-of-the-art, interactive visitor display has no equal when it comes to explaining Al Ain’s deep history and its status as a Unesco World Heritage site.

Al Jahili Fort, Al Ain

One of the most impressive fortresses in Al Ain, Al Jahili – built in the 1890s – now hosts an exhibition dedicated to English adventurer Wilfred Thesiger. Known affectionately as “Mubarak bin London”, he first visited Buraimi, as Al Ain was then known, after crossing the Empty Quarter in 1946.

• Open Saturday to Thursday from 9am to 5pm, Friday from 3pm to 5pm. Call 03 711 8311