Dubai’s best museum occupies the sturdy Al Fahidi Fort, built around 1800 and considered the city’s oldest structure. The exhibit charts the emirate’s turbo-evolution from fishing and pearling village to global centre of commerce, finance and tourism in engaging, multimedia fashion. A walk-through mock souq, exhibits on Bedouin life in the desert and a room highlighting the importance of the sea illustrate the days before the discovery of oil. The last room showcases archaeological findings from nearby excavation sites.
Fortified by three towers, Al Fahidi Fort served as the residence of the local rulers until 1896 and went through stints as a prison and a garrison before becoming a museum in 1971. A sturdy teak gate gives way to the central courtyard dotted with bronze cannons, traditional boats and an areesh (a palm-frond hut that was the kind of summer home most locals lived in until the middle of the 20th century). Flanking the courtyard are rooms with modest displays of instruments and weapons.
The main exhibit kicks off at the end of a spiralling ramp with a 10-minute video featuring historical Dubai highlights from the 1930s to the 2000s. From here, you cross the deck of a dhow to enter a mock souq with dioramas depicting shopkeepers and craftsmen at work, enhanced by light and sound effects as well as film footage. Other scenes show life at home, at Quran school, in the desert and at sea. The latter includes a small section on the tough life of pearl divers, who made up to 50 deep dives daily equipped with nothing but nose clips and leather finger gloves.
The exhibit culminates in the archaeology section, which showcases finds from ancient settlements and tombs at Jumeirah, Al Qusais and other local archaeological sites that are believed to attest to the area’s settlement for around 4000 years.