There are certain requirements for any city that wants to be considered a global player, and they include a demonstration of tradition and heritage to sit alongside the bleeding-edge urban-laboratory thinking.
Equally the rulers of the UAE are still in a nation-building phase that demands evidence of longevity (which equals stability) and a solid basis for the ways things are today.
And tourists like confirmation that they are in abroad-land, with indications of differences (apart from the weather) as demonstrated by local culture and traditions.
That’s why museums are so important in the Emirates, though with interesting variations in emphasis between them. Sharjah was there some time ago, setting up the Sharjah Museums Authority back in 2006 and running a clutch of educational/cultural institutions – museums of calligraphy, archaeology, heritage, maritime tradition, science, and (ahem) classic cars, as well its crown jewels: the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization and the Sharjah Art Museum.
If Sharjah’s interest seems more about nurturing its own people, Abu Dhabi’s methodology is outward looking: the Louvre and the (hopefully) forthcoming Guggenheim are deliberate attempts to plug into an international ecosystem, and even the Zayed National Museum – which will house “a comprehensive overview of the natural and human history of the UAE” plus “the life and achievements of Sheikh Zayed” when and if it gets built – had to be designed by a world-class starchitect, and will necessarily be a dramatic physical statement as well as (or rather than) a warehouse of culture.
Dubai’s approach sits somewhere between the two.
The Dubai Museum is housed in the city’s oldest building, the Al Fahidi Fort, and it has been there for nearly 50 years; it’s modest in its scope and its ambitions, and a bastion of the diorama as an illustrative tool for history.
The Etihad Museum is a different animal altogether, a repository for the contemporary history of the United Arab Emirates in a stylish building designed by Moriyama & Teshima that’s arranged as a series of interactive pavilions. There’s
Now comes Al Shindagha Museum, reckoned to be one of the largest open-air museums in the world and pitched specifically as “a key tourist attraction that helps raise Dubai’s historic and cultural significance”. (We hope they actually mean “awareness of Dubai’s historic and cultural significance” because the alternative would be a tad depressing …)
Dubai’s Tourism Vision 2020 sets a target of more than 20 million visitors per year by 2020, which is not too far away now (there were 15.8m last year). And 12 million of the 2020 total will be attracted to the Dubai Historical District.
The Dubai Historical District project was announced back in 2015, a development of 1.5 square kilometres of Al Shindagha and Al Fahidi that is planned include a total of 60 separate projects – new museums, forts, restaurants and open-air spaces along Dubai Creek. The aim: “to support cultural tourism in Dubai and the UAE at large by bringing authentic traditions and heritage to life” as Saeed Al Nabouda, Acting DG at Dubai Culture, put it.
Dubai Culture will be managing Al Shindagha Museum. It will eventually take up much of the Shindagha area on the Bur Dubai side of the Creek opposite Al Ras and north of Al Fahidi. It’s been a bit of a building site for a while as many of the historic houses in the area are being refurbished and converted into around two dozen separate museum and related institutions.
It already has a couple of these, such as the Saruq Al-Hadid Archaeological Museum (displays artefacts from the Saruq Al-Hadid site in the south of the Emirate) and the Heritage and Diving Museum. There’s also Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum House, named for the grandfather of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid and the Al Maktoum family residence up to 1958.
There are now a couple of new additions. One is a tourist-friendly introduction to Dubai, ‘The Dubai Creek: Birth of a City’. It’s a tour through the history of Dubai, with some quite cool interactivity showing the modernisation and expansion of Dubai Creek; an impressive ‘Governance and Society section’ with documents and archival photography; and ‘Living off the Sea and Land’, a slightly less well realised collection – but then while locals will have heard much of this before, the tourists won’t. And it does ound like a perfect first stop for contents of the cruise ships docking just round the corner.
The other recent opening is the Perfume House, home to a largely sensory experience that covers the role of scents both in the Emiratis’ personal life and in Dubai’s trade. This kind of single-focus exhibit sounds more promising in terms of providing connections and insights.
There’s also a Children’s Pavilion and a dedicated section for education and public programming, so it’s clearly not just for tourists. More openings are promised in the coming months, with “innovative exhibitions, organised events, and specialised public-learning programmes”. The goal is “a world-class heritage museum … embracing traditional values and revealing powerful continuities between past and contemporary Emirati identity”.
Tickets to the Al Shindagha Museum are currently priced at AED 15 for adults, AED 10 for children. The Saruq Al-Hadid Archaeological Museum has separate ticketing, at AED 20 adults and AED 10 for kids.