Let travellers’ tales transport you

An exhibition based on the history of travel and transport in the UAE also makes good use of its own theme by taking the exhibits on tour to various public locations. The thinking is simple – if people can’t or won’t go to museums, take the museums to the people.
A photo of Sheikh Zayed, the country’s founding father, driving the UAE’s first car.
A photo of Sheikh Zayed, the country’s founding father, driving the UAE’s first car.

An exhibition based on the history of travel and transport in the UAE also makes good use of its own theme by taking the exhibits on tour to various public locations. The thinking is simple – if people can’t or won’t go to museums, take the museums to the people.

From the outside it looks like a giant colourful gift box, except for an orange arrow pointing to the entrance, and the tantalising message: “Take a peek.”

For the curious, there are a young Emirati woman and man waiting to welcome those who stop by with a smile and an encouraging nudge to go inside.

What they will find inside are objects, artefacts and images from different museums in Sharjah that capture the evolution of transport and travel in the UAE.

Despite its simplicity, the display has a serious message, to coincide with International Museum Day this month. Currently in a mall in Sharjah and soon moving to another large retail outlet in Dubai, the philosophy behind the exhibition is that if you don’t come to a museum, the museum can still come to you.

By setting up in a shopping centre, the initiative, entitled Museum Collections Make Connections, hopes to introduce museums to people who may have never considered visiting such an institution.

“We want to connect and reach out to a wider audience, and help them see that a museum is not something intimidating or boring. We want to listen to them and see what interests them and why,” says Nasir Al Darmaki, the curator at the Sharjah Archaeology Museum.

He happens to be working at the mall exhibition and guides visitors inside, where the first artefact on show is a small ceramic camel figurine that comes from his own the museum.

This unique painted piece, found at the Iron Age site of Mulaiha, has a prominent saddle or what could be interpreted as a load on top of its back. The find is so important it was adopted as the logo of the museum.

“It is over 2,500 years old, and it is an important symbol of the domestication of camels and their use in transport and caravans routes across the region,” says Mr Al Darmaki.

“The domestication of the camel opened up caravan routes across Arabia allowing overland trade, particularly in incense and frankincense – considered the first ‘oil of the Arabs’.”

The trade brought great wealth to kingdoms in Yemen and to the commercial stopping points in the area known today as the UAE, part of a route followed by camel caravans across the Arabian Peninsula from south to north and east along the Arabian Gulf coasts.

“The domestication of camels changed the way we lived. It helped set the foundation for the Bedouin lifestyle that still survives today,” says the curator.

The second object is an astrolabe, brought from the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisation, an astronomic instrument that “helped travellers find their way”.

Mr Al Darmaki says: “The first Islamic scientist to make an astrolabe was the mathematician Abu Ja’far Muhammad bin Al Hussein Al Khazen in the second half of the 4th century Hijri / 10th century AD. This tool helped determine the direction towards Mecca, not just for prayers but also for the annual Haj caravans on their way to Mecca.”

The astrolabe allowed the position of the sun, the moon and the stars in the skies to be determined, including the North Star – important for setting directions. The device helped travellers on land and on the sea.

Astrolabes have two main components. The body contains discs with celestial maps showing the night sky at a particular time above a particular place, and the device’s so-called rete (Latin for net) which consists of pointers and co-ordinates used with the discs below to measure the height of the stars and planets in the sky above a particular location.

The astrolabe on show is an exact replica of an original made by Ahmad ibn Al Sarraj (729H/1329AD).

For security reasons, the items on display are replicas.

Across the wall is a large image of the famous Arab navigator Ahmed ibn Majid’s “nautical compass”. Born in Ras Al Khaimah in the 9th century in the Islamic calender, or 15th century AD, as the son of a famous sailor, Ibn Majid wrote over 30 important books about navigation and marine travel.

There is also a small model of the Sama’a boat, based on a massive life-size diving boat found at the Sharjah Maritime Museum. During the 13th and early 14th centuries, or 19th and early 20th centuries in the CE, the Sama’a was one of the most widely used trading vessels. But perhaps more relevant modes of transport are those highlighted in old black-and-white photos, including Land Rovers, designed and produced by Maurice Wilks in 1948 and a favourite vehicle for farmers, the police and emergency services.

The other image is that of planes with giant propellers, such as the Handley Page passenger aircraft Hanno, operated between London and India by Imperial Airways.

It is next to an enlarged image of Sheikh Sultan bin Saqr Al Qasimi, then ruler of Sharjah, standing next to a cannon, who came with a delegation of people to receive Hanno after it was flown in from Gawader, Oman, on October 5, 1932.

It was the first aircraft to land in Sharjah, at the first airport in the UAE and was on its way home to England via Bahrain, a journey that would take several days, yet represented a revolution in travel. Along with the passengers and crew, the aircraft carried spare parts for repairs.

“A new method of travelling had arrived,” reads a printed explanation next to the photo. “Even if – at the time – the main beneficiaries were only wealthy foreign travellers on their way from London to India. The journey in the 1930s took around three days with overnight stops at Baghdad and Sharjah. The service continued until the outbreak of World War Two, by which the Hanno fleet had flown a total of 2.2 million miles.”

For those wanting to learn more about planes and cars, the temporary display suggests a visit to Al Mahatta Museum and Sharjah Classic Cars Museum.

From the collection of Sharjah Art Museum are two paintings of old markets, captured by Orientalist artists of the 13th century Hijri or 19th century AD,

Besides the actual exhibition, Sharjah Museums Department has launched an interactive project on social media, asking Twitter and Instagram users to post photos of objects, old or new that have a special meaning for them, using the hashtag #heartifact and mentioning @sharjahmuseums.

Posts already sent to the department are broadcast on a TV monitor inside the exhibition and show everything from old childhood toys, to an old Nokia phone, a school notebook and favourite shoes, all to be shared with visitors.

“Museums have become more dynamic, where they have workshops and they reach out to the community and schools, and work together to keep the museums and its treasures alive and relevant,” says Mr Al Darmaki.

Sharjah Museums are among some 35,000 institutions from more than 140 countries on five continents taking part in International Museum Day, which was established in 1977 by the International Council of Museums to encourage public awareness of the role of museums in the development of society.

“You come to us and tell us your story, and we will come to you and tell you the stories our collections tell. We want to promote a timeless dialogue at museums.”


Published: May 21, 2014 04:00 AM


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