The history of museums in the Emirates

To coincide with International Museum Day on May 18, we focus on the history of museums in the Emirates.

The “Petra Treasures” exhibition opening at the Sharjah Archaeology Museum. Antonie Robertson / The National
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The UAE has about as many museums as it has had birthdays, with more than 45 cultural, educational and historic spaces spread across the seven emirates, plus a high-profile handful in the pipeline.

The desire to preserve and map the country’s heritage, as well as create new venues where visitors of all ages, nationalities and interests can learn, discuss and marvel at static and interactive exhibits, is nothing new.

In 1969, two years before the formation of the United Arab Emirates, Al Ain National ­Museum was the first to create a new cultural narrative, charting the history of the “garden city” from the Stone Age through to the lead up to the foundation of the UAE.

Almost 50 years later, the UAE is home to a diverse collection of world-class museums, from the classic to the less conventional. Al Ain’s Qasr Al Muwaiji is the birthplace of Sheikh ­Khalifa, President of the UAE; the new Saruq Al Hadid Museum in ­Dubai showcases Iron Age artefacts unearthed on the fringes of the Rub Al Khali desert; for niche viewing, there are spaces dedicated to camels, moving images, women, police history and coins.

Community identity

Sharjah Archaeology Museum entered the fray in 1993 and heralded more than a decade of unveilings in the emirate. For Manal Ataya, director general of Sharjah Museums Department, there’s a vital link between local culture and the evolution of the country’s museums. “Our museums have grown out of a local tradition of collecting that has always formed part of local cultural life throughout the ­Emirates,” Ataya explains.

A focus on providing a multicultural experience is also a major consideration. “All of these projects combine an Islamic, Emirati, Arab and international outlook, and spring from an inherent identification with, and understanding of, topics and preoccupations relevant across the community and its people,” she says.

Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority director general Saif Saeed Ghobash’s view is similar. “There has been a distinct focus on cultural heritage in recent years and the crafts and practices that are more intangible, rather than the physical sites and projects – those things that are passed from generation to generation,” he says. “These are fascinating for visitors to the emirate, but also of huge importance to the Emirati ­community.”

Tailored curation

Sharjah’s cultural portfolio has broad appeal, ranging from its well-known Art Museum to the fascinating Al Mahatta ­Museum, housed in the original Sharjah Airport building, and the Classic Cars Museum.

“It is important to understand your audience and their specific interests,” Ataya says. “We know, for example, that locals and residents make up the largest percentage of our visitors, followed by academic institutions, while tourists make up just 15 per cent of total visitor numbers.

“With this in mind, our strategies are devised depending on the specific audience groups we would like to attract, including meaningful and engaging ongoing programming for local families and locally based community groups, conceived to ensure that they are continuously encouraged to (re)visit our ­museums.”

Abu Dhabi is also looking to engage visitors as part of the cultural journey, by developing new experiences that will open traditional practices to both a local and international audience.

“A partnership between TCA Abu Dhabi and Al Khaznah Tannery will allow visitors to discover and experience the process of hand-producing hide leather goods, a practice integral to UAE’s cultural heritage,” ­Ghobash says.

Exhibiting innovation

The evolution of the visitor journey from static showcases to interactive experiences is something that Sharjah Museums Department has invested significant resources in developing.

“We believe that our visitors need to be engaged at three levels: the physical, intellectual and virtual,” Ataya explains. “We endeavour to make our museums accessible to all visitors, including those with special needs and disabilities. Recent initiatives have included the provision of museum information in Braille and the creation of replica objects, which allow blind visitors to touch, and therefore imagine and learn more about key museum objects. In other sites, opportunities are provided to use the sense of smell to explore objects and their cultural and historical context.”

The jewel in the department’s crown is its use of innovative technology. Since 2012, it has been a major contributor to the world’s largest virtual museum, the Museum with No Frontiers (

Next-generation technology is also aiding the visitor experience in Abu Dhabi, Ghobash says.

“In Qasr Al Muwaiji, for example, advanced technology is used to narrate the story of the place and its inhabitants. Interactive mediation tools aid our narration, displaying videos and oral testimonials from archaeologists and historians.”

And it doesn’t stop there. Ghobash confirms that the upcoming Louvre Abu Dhabi in Saadiyat Cultural District will be a “truly 21st-century museum” featuring the newest technological and methodological advances.

Cultural safeguarding

As the UAE boosts its cultural legacy with the launch of slick new multimillion-dirham museum experiences, there’s a potential risk of old favourites fading into obscurity. But that’s not the case, according to Ghobash.

“The messages and curatorial proposition of the museums and cultural sites in Al Ain are intrinsic to the museums that will be located in the Saadiyat ­Cultural District and are reflected throughout,” he says. “Visitors to the museums on Saadiyat Island will see artefacts from the burial sites and settlements in Al Ain, and will be encouraged to make the journey to visit these sites themselves. The magnificent dome of Louvre Abu Dhabi, for example, represents the dappled light of the oases in Al Ain.”

For visitors to Sharjah museums, Ataya says: “We would like our visitors to view the museums and their collections, carefully devised temporary exhibitions, educational activities and outreach programme, as a reflection and representation of the main facets of the Arab and Islamic culture of Sharjah. In all it does, Sharjah Museums Department is aware how important it is to do this work, because Arab and Islamic culture is not always granted the positive exposure it deserves and the correct context in which to understand it.”

The importance of resonating at a deeper level is also a pillar of the strategy in Abu Dhabi, ­Ghobash explains: “The key message we want our audiences to take with them is the universal importance of the preservation and promotion of culture. Culture is a unifying force that can break down the barriers between ideologies and civilisations, and is a means by which we can communicate our unique and rich heritage to the world.”

The expert

Australian expat Sue-Sharyn Ward has lived in the UAE since 1979. The former licensed tour guide for Abu Dhabi and Dubai has seen the Emirates’ cultural landscape develop first-hand.

“The first ‘museum’ I visited in Dubai was in Bastakiya, before the area was restored, It was a gallery showing old black-and-white photographs by Ramesh Shukla, of residents from the 50s and 60s, when all the streets in Bur Dubai and Deira were sand and the houses were made of barasti,” she reminisces.

It was only in the 1980s that Ward began to see more of an interest in developing the cultural landscape, with venues such as the Majlis Gallery in Bastakiya opening. The area also captured the attention of heir to the British throne Prince Charles during a Dubai visit.

“When they restored Al Fahidi Fort in the 90s, this was essentially the first ‘interactive’ museum experience, with holograms and audio used to give an authentic feel to the static exhibits,” Ward says.

After 38 years in the Emirates, and many hours guiding visitors around the UAE, she still has a firm favourite: Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum House in the Shindagha area. “This is where Sheikh Rashid [the former Ruler of Dubai and the father of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai] was born. I had the privilege of roaming through the original building before it was restored; and the lingering imprint of past rulers could still be imagined in every corner,” she says.

Dubai’s newest collection also gets Ward’s approval. “I recently visited the Etihad Museum [pictured on the cover] and was very impressed, particularly in how they managed to incorporate the original building where the rulers of the Trucial States came together to form the UAE in 1971. The museum design, which was inspired by the constitution manuscript, cleverly uses light and shadow to present simple displays in vast expanses of quiet space.”


1969: Al Ain National Museum

1971: Dubai Museum

1980s: Qasr Al Hosn, Abu Dhabi

1981: Ajman Museum

1986: Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum House, Dubai

1987: National Museum of Ras Al Khaimah; Dubai Police Museum

1991: Fujairah Museum

1993: Sharjah Archaeology Museum

1994: Al Ahmadiya School, Dubai (currently closed for renovation)

1995: Bait Al Naboodah, Sharjah

1996: Majlis Al Midfa, Sharjah; Sharjah Islamic Museum (reopened as Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization in 2008); Sharjah Science Museum

1997: Sharjah Fort (Al Hisn); Naif Museum, Dubai; Sharjah Art Museum; Heritage Village, Dubai (Camel and Horse museums currently under renovation)

1999: Bait Sheikh Saeed bin Hamad Al Qasimi, Kalba

2000: Al Mahatta Museum, Sharjah; Umm Al Quwain Museum

2001: Al Ain Palace Museum

2002: Sharjah Calligraphy Museum

2003: Sharjah Maritime Museum; Pearl Museum, Dubai; Al Eslah School Museum, Sharjah

2004: Emirates National Auto Museum, Abu Dhabi (currently closed for maintenance); Coin Museum, Dubai (currently closed for renovation)

2005: Sharjah Heritage Museum

2006: Dubai Municipality Museum

2007: Al Jahili Fort, Al Ain

2008: Sharjah Classic Cars Museum

2009: Al Ain Classic Car Museum

2010: Museum of the Poet Al Oqaili, Dubai (currently under renovation)

2012: Women’s Museum, Dubai

2013: UAE Currency Museum, Abu Dhabi; Dubai Moving Image Museum

2014: Dubai Coffee Museum; Al Meraikhi Old House, Dalma Island, Abu Dhabi

2015: Qasr Al Muwaiji, Al Ain

2016: Saruq Al Hadid Museum, Dubai

2017: Etihad Museum, Dubai

Coming soon: Louvre Abu Dhabi; Zayed National Museum, Abu Dhabi, Guggenheim Abu Dhabi