Dubai has roots dating back thousands of years – back to when Bedouin traders would stop off to rest beside Dubai Creek – and the emirate’s diverse museums provide a great way to learn this history. Today, there is an ever-growing number of museums in Dubai, ranging from traditional history museums to art galleries and private collections now open to the public.
Dubai may be the Middle East’s most modern state, but that does not mean that museums are in short supply – far from it. Whether you are looking to learn about the history of Dubai, emerging from centuries as a small trading post to the luxurious city of today, or about the pearling industry that brought immense wealth to the trading families of the emirate, the city’s variety of museums span all interests and ages.
In the upmarket Jumeirah neighbourhood, the ultra-modern Etihad Museum is located in a striking building that symbolises how Dubai combines modernity with heritage. Several exhibitions document the formative years of the United Arab Emirates, showcasing how the rulers met to discuss the formation of the contemporary state. Rolling videos show the founding father, Sheikh Zayed, speaking about his new country, and photos show the rulers coming together. Original weapons, political documents and speeches marking the development of the UAE are also on display. What makes the museum more significant is the Union House, a small circular meeting room in the gardens of the museum where the federal constitution was signed in 1971. The museum offers discounted tickets for students and children.
The Salsali Private Museum (SPM) is the first private museum in Dubai for both contemporary and historical Middle Eastern art. Ramin Salsali, an Iranian national who began collecting the 900 works of art at the age of 21, founded the museum in 2011. Located on Alserkal Avenue, in the industrial Al Quoz area, the SPM showcases historical paintings, textiles and embroidery, pottery, metallurgy, photography and carvings by some of the most renowned Middle Eastern artists, such as Amir Hossein Zanjani, in its permanent collection. You will also be able to view work from emerging and established collectors in the collector lounge. Entrance is free.
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Inside an old fort in Deira that was once the first headquarters of Dubai’s police and a prison, the Naif Museum offers a flavour of old Dubai. Constructed in 1939, the museum details the development of the Dubai police force and justice system. It is a small but well-formed museum that displays old police uniforms, weapons, original photographs and medals awarded to police officers throughout Dubai’s modern history. Admission to the museum is free.
Located in what is believed to be the oldest building in Dubai, Al Fahidi Fort in Bur Dubai, the Dubai Museum documents 3,000 years of Gulf history. You can learn about the history of the building itself and the traditional wooden dhow (sailing boat) standing outside, before moving on to an array of local antiquities exhibited inside. There are dioramas and displays dedicated to historical weapons used to defend Dubai over the centuries, goods traded via the emirate and the way of life of the Bedouin tribes that called the city home. The museum is the most visited in the UAE and offers a great overview of how Dubai has developed since its foundation.
Showcasing artefacts found in one of the most important historical sites in Dubai, the Saruq Al-Hadid Archaeology Museum was established by the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who discovered the Iron Age site from his helicopter. Located in the Shindagha district, this archaeological museum displays metal brooches and utensils, animal bones and jewellery in several rooms dedicated to the settlement on which Dubai was built. Entry is 20 dirhams (£4.32) for adults and 10 dirhams (£2.16) for children.
Coffee is the favourite drink of Emiratis, served in almost every café across the country, so the Coffee Museum offers an interesting insight into how the national drink has developed. In the Al Fahidi area, the museum documents how different cultures around the world drink and produce coffee, and how the tradition of coffee drinking emerged in Dubai. There is also a shop selling rare and unusual coffees from several countries and a café. The museum is free to enter.
Located beside Dubai Creek – the oldest part of Dubai where early traders arrived and set up home – the Al Shindagha Museum immerses visitors in the culture and history of the Emirates and the wider Middle East. The museum, which received its patronage from the ruler of Dubai, is divided into sections that focus on specific elements of Emirati life. These include a room dedicated to the story of Dubai Creek, documenting the opening of the first bank, police station and market, boat building and a room focusing on Emirati perfume-making and its special place in Emirati culture. Tickets for the museum should be booked online before visiting.
Inside the headquarters of the Emirates NBD, in the Deira district, the Pearl Museum documents how the pearling industry brought wealth to Dubai for centuries. Sultan Al Owais, Dubai’s most important philanthropist, poet and pearl merchant, collected and donated the precious pearls on display in the museum. Entrance to the museum is free, and be prepared for security checks.
Dubai’s Coins Museum is dedicated to the money that the city has used for centuries. Visitors to the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood could easily miss the unassuming museum facade, but inside, they will find several display cabinets filled with coins and banknotes that will take them on a journey through Dubai’s numismatic history. Spread across eight rooms, 470 rare coins from different historical periods, from ancient Egypt to the British Empire, detail the development of finance in the Emirates. The free-to-enter museum is also home to 16 rare Arab-Sasanian dirhams used during the Rashidun and Umayyad Caliphates (around AD 632-750).
The former summer home of Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the former ruler of Dubai and the second prime minister of the UAE, Majlis Ghorfat Umm Al Sheif is a traditional gypsum and coral house just off Jumeirah Beach. The house is a rare example of a preserved Arab building with a natural ventilation system, with a roof that was styled for drying dates and outdoor sleeping. The rooms have been decorated with authentic carpets, pottery and lanterns.