Past and present
The summer months are the perfect time to immerse yourself in the UAE’s wealth of cultural sites, many of which are dedicated to preserving its heritage
Since the rule of the late founder Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the UAE has always placed great importance on preserving its traditions, even as it looked towards the future.
Today, the emirates are home to some incredible museums, art galleries and heritage areas, with even more on the way. Through vast collections of historic art and artefacts, visitors can immerse themselves in the relics of a bygone era, joining the dots to better understand the UAE’s journey from a Bedouin settlement to global metropolis.
When Louvre Abu Dhabi opened in Saadiyat Cultural District in November 2017, it changed the cultural (and literal) landscape of the UAE forever. From its iconic dome inspired by the region’s traditional palm frond roofs to its collection of 600 artworks and historic relics, it is one of the Middle East’s must-visit attractions. The collection is displayed across 23 galleries in 12 sequences, organised in chronological order to highlight the similarities and parallels between different cultures.
The artefacts are truly awe-inspiring, from ancient Egyptian pharaohs to historical figurines that date back as early as 3,000 BCE. Art lovers are sure to marvel at the paintings by legendary masters such as Warhol, Whistler, Da Vinci and Van Gogh. In addition, the display of original religious texts is extraordinary – highlights include items from Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism and Judaism – as well as being an astonishing show of diversity and tolerance.
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Saadiyat Cultural District is also set to become the home of the longawaited Guggenheim Abu Dhabi as well as Zayed National Museum. The latter is a memorial to the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the founding president of the UAE.
Abu Dhabi is also home to several smaller museums with their own unique charms. Al Ain Palace Museum, located on the edge of the Al Ain Oasis, was once the residence of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan and his family, and today, provides a fascinating insight into times gone by. The many displays aim to educate visitors about Bedouin history.
Perhaps one of the capital’s quirkiest is the Emirates National Auto Museum. Located around 45 kilometres south of the city, it seems to rise like a mirage out of the desert and is home to around 200 cars, the private collection of His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Hamdan Al Nahyan. An essential visit for any motoring enthusiast, some of the cars have even featured on the British show Top Gear.
Other highlights include the world’s largest pickup truck and the sheikh’s flamboyant rainbow Mercedes Benz collection. One of the newest additions to the region’s cultural scene is Etihad Museum. It is built, literally and figuratively, on the foundations of the UAE, right next to Union House in Jumeirah, where the signing of the treaty that united the emirates took place in 1971. The architecture mimics the shape of a manuscript, with seven columns built into the museum as symbols of the pens that were used to sign the declaration. Covering 2.5 hectares, it is divided into eight pavilions that tell the story of the UAE’s history, with extra emphasis on the period between 1968 and 1974.
With its streamlined architecture and futuristic displays, Etihad Museum is one of the best places in the region to learn about the UAE’s constitution and the rights, privileges and responsibilities it bestows upon its people. Some of the highlights include local art, memorabilia donated by former and current UAE royalty and a pavilion dedicated to the UAE constitution, which includes the original declaration document.
While Dubai Museum, also known as Al Fahidi Fort, is not as futuristic as Etihad Museum, it is still teeming with visitors most weekends, and with good reason. Located on the south side of Dubai Creek, this historical site uses lifesized dioramas to depict the long-forgotten practices of a pre-oil era Dubai, from traditional houses to pearl diving and desert landscapes.
Also worth a visit is the nearby Coffee Museum. In the Arab world coffee is more than just a hot beverage. It is associated with hospitality, socialising and the exchange of ideas, so it’s fitting that the UAE has its own museum dedicated to it. Located in Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood, it’s a fascinating destination for anyone with even a passing interest in the history of this humble drink.
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In 2020, Dubai will welcome the Museum of the Future. Currently under construction, the immense structure is set to function as ‘an incubator for new ideas’ and a facilitator for futuristic innovation and design. It will be the largest of its kind in the world, building on five years of temporary exhibitions held at the World Government Summit.
Owned by Khalid Al Mulla, the collection of coffee-related memorabilia is truly mind-boggling – highlights include 18th-century textbooks, centuries-old coffee pots from Egypt, Ethiopia and Yemen and coffee grinders that date back to World War I. Be sure to visit the museum’s own café for a freshly brewed cup.
Like the Coffee Museum, the History of Cinema Museum is a hidden gem, tucked away in Barsha Heights among the high rise buildings. Unlike the majority of UAE museums, which focus on the development of the region, it traces the history of moving images, from prehistoric cave drawings to shadow puppets and the evolution of cinema. Located in the MCN Hive Building, the museum houses the private collection of MCN chairman Akram Miknas, who has amassed an incredible array of memorabilia over more than 25 years, hoping to inspire visitors with his enthusiasm for the art.
Some items date back as early as the 1730s and the display includes an 18th-century Dutch peep box viewer and a 20th-century mutoscope. Sharjah was named the Cultural Capital of the Arab World in 1998 and is well worth a visit. The emirate is known for championing the preservation of its customs and traditions and boasts a wealth of historical attractions, many of which are located in its heritage area, the Heart of Sharjah. Among these is the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization, home to an incredible display of more than 5,000 objects of historical significance to Islam. These revolve not only around religion but also discoveries in science, literature and technology. Just a short stroll away is Sharjah Art Museum, one of the UAE’s best-loved cultural destinations, which boasts more than 500 artworks.
The permanent collection of paintings by local artists traces the history of the region and the museum also hosts a number of temporary exhibitions showcasing regional and international artists throughout the year. It’s a must-visit during the Sharjah Biennial, a world-class celebration of contemporary art that takes place once every two years, with the current edition underway until June 10.