When it comes to the museum world, the Gulf States stepped into it much later compared to other countries. Despite that, in a matter of years, the GCC countries have become home to some of the most exquisite museums in the world. From magnificent architectures housing some of the best-curated global collections, the museums in the Gulf countries have begun to attract visitors from all around the world.
Crucially, at a time when museums around the world, notably in Europe, have been feeling the pinch of lower state-funding and left to raise their own resources to balance their budgets, museums in the GCC are flush with funds and the difference shows up starkly in the entire museum experience.
To get you started, here is a list of the top six museums of GCC countries.
National Museum of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh
Established in 1999, the National Museum of Saudi Arabia is housed within a striking modernist architecture and graceful flower-wreathed gardens.
Located in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, the museum is famous for its eight ‘Exhibition Halls’, each of which is themed around a different part of the region’s history.
One doesn’t need a guide to tour the museum. Simply look down and you will find the floor marked with arrows to guide and help you move around the museum.
Follow the markings to catch a glimpse of the type of animals that once roamed the Arabian Peninsula. Be amazed at meteorites and explore a reconstruction of the dazzling Tuwaiq mountain range. Also, there is a riveting display of rock carvings, which feature an ancient human handprint.
Some of the standout displays include vintage cars, earliest Aramaic and Islamic writings carved into stone slabs, replica of traditional Arab market, and yes even dinosaurs!
An interesting aspect of the museum is to encourage visitors to try and their hand at water colour painting.
Museum of Islamic Art, Doha
Yet another architectural wonder in the list, the Museum of Islamic Art opened to the world in 2008 and became the crown jewel of Qatar’s museums.
Past the array of palm trees along the outdoor walkway along with the salty ocean air in view, the Museum of Islamic Art stands at the end built in the shapes of circles, squares and stars.
Erected on an artificial island abutting Doha’s central waterfront promenade, the museum represents Islamic art from three continents over 1,400 years and is one of its kind.
Designed in such a way, to get visitors automatically going through the earliest expressions of Islamic Art, both geographically, and chronologically, is a speciality of the museum. Its starting point is some of stunning art from the 7th and 8th Century, along with several well preserved bowls that feature abstract images.
There is also a collection of 21,000 books, including 2,000 rare editions in both Arabic and English.
Visitors should definitely look for the Shahnameh Manuscript, before looking for The Book of Kings written about 1,000 years ago by Persian poet Ferdowsi, recounting the histories and myths of the pre-Islamic Greater Persian Empire. Also be prepared to be dazzled when you set your eyes on the Carved Emerald Plaque, a large emerald from the 16th century.
With breathtaking views of the city’s skyline, the museum contains four floors of permanent and temporary exhibitions, gift shop, a café and an haute cuisine restaurant ‘IDAM’ on the fifth floor. Yes, food lovers are in for a treat.
The museum is also known to host a variety of cultural activities throughout the year, where one can witness performances by the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra, film screenings and art and calligraphy classes for the community.
Louvre Abu Dhabi Museum, Abu Dhabi
Opened to the public in 2008, the Louvre Abu Dhabi Museum was born out of an extraordinary partnership between France and the United Arab Emirates.
Situated in the Saadiyat Island, the museum is the largest art museum in the Arabian Peninsula.
Many museums mentioned in the list are fine specimen of architect, but when it comes to the Louvre, visitors often find themselves speechless and breathless in the presence of this spectacular phenomenon.
A fusion of modern and traditional architect, it can be described as an Arabic-galactic gray half-sphere resting on a low base, surrounded by water. A giant dome, with radiating geometric patterns providing shade, and punctuated by the rays of the sun in the morning is a truly beautiful sight to behold.
At night, this place transforms into an oasis of light under a starry dome.
With a focus on forging connections between Eastern and Western art, the museum has a unique look and feel. Here, several works from renowned artists ranging from funky pre-historic and modern artworks are displayed in 12 galleries and in varied collections. Some important pieces include Oriental Bliss by Paul Klee, the Swiss German artist from the early 1990s, who is known for his distinctive style, influenced by movements in art that includes expressionism, cubism, and surrealism. Another includes Fountain of Light, a spectacular work of steel and glass, made with dozens of chandelier by the Chinese contemporary artist, documentarian, and activist Ai Weiwei.
Of course, the museum doesn’t miss out on historical art and artefacts with collections like the statue of Mari-cha Lion, the funeral pieces of the Egyptian princess Henuttawy, and the statue of a Bactrian princess.
A collection of more than 600 artworks at the museum, from all around the world, telling unique stories of their own, will definitely sound like heaven to history buffs and art admirers.
The museum really does look out for everyone. There’s actually a children’s museum within the Louvre Abu Dhabi, that is spread across two floors and offers several interactive workshops and exhibits for the 6-12 year olds. Its other tourist friendly facilities offers include wheelchair friendly settings, valet parking, baby-changing facilities and tactile stations.
The Dubai Museum, Dubai
Renovated and opened to the public in 1971, during the reign of Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the Dubai Museum has been named as the most beautiful museum in the world.
Located in the bustling area of Bur Dubai, the Dubai Museum is one of the most iconic and popular attractions in the city.
Before taking a step inside, one can’t simply help but marvel at the intricate architecture of the Al Fahidi fort, the oldest building in the city. It houses the Dubai Museum and has stood through time, witnessed and served many purposes in the history of Dubai.
Take a look around before heading in and you will find a magnificent wooden model of a Dhow (Arab boat) erected just some steps away from the fort.
Once inside the museum, you will be meet with arrays of miniature and life size dioramas, artefacts, antiques, displays and boards inscribed with information beside each one of them. Take your time to go through them and you will get an insightful revelation with the different phases of Dubai’s transformation that followed the oil boom in the 1960s.
Get a glimpse of everyday life in Dubai’s history and its heritage as you ramble on the different wings of the museum with exhibitions of life like models depicting and re creating scenes from the different aspects of life and the way people lived during ancient Dubai.
The full-scale wings of the museum featuring various relics of trade and commerce in ancient Dubai along with video footage telecast at the background, gives one a feeling of being on a real souq (market) in Old Dubai.
Some of the highlights of the museum include exploring traditional Arab houses from the past, the rich history of pearl diving in the region, The Wing of Dubai that exhibits all the hard work it took to be one of the most modern cities in the world, Replications of markets from the 1950s and The Oasis Wing and the Desert At Night, both of which depict desert life and a glimpse of the wildlife of Dubai.
Be awed as you walk down through a descending path, and observe models of seagulls soaring below the roof, and above the diorama of land with flowing river, and can be looked down from above the staircase, giving one the feeling of looking down on earth from the heavens.
And yes, don’t forget to make a final stop at a gift shop to find gifts and other souvenirs at surprisingly affordable prices.
The Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisation, Sharjah
The Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisation opened its doors to the public on June 6, 2008.
The museum is housed in the impressive building of the traditional Souq Al Majarrah, that was earlier a traditional Middle Eastern souq.
The second of its kind in the Gulf region to use traditional, Arab-Islamic design elements in its ground-plan and décor, the building is a magnificent structure with attractive design features.
The Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisation is famous for holding thousands of rare and important Islamic artifacts gathered from all over the Islamic World and arranged according to themes over seven spacious galleries and display areas.
Perhaps what stands out the most is its majestic, gilt central dome, which is decorated on the inside with an intricate mosaic depicting the starry night sky and beautiful signs of the zodiac.
Take your time as you enter the ground floor and find rare historical Quran manuscripts and important facts about mosque architecture in the Abu Bakr Gallery of Islamic Faith. Get blown away by the gallery showcasing achievements of Islamic science and contributions to world in Ibn al Haitham Gallery of Islamic Science and Innovation. Find the prominent display of historical Islamic Coinage and attend world class exhibitions hosted twice a year at the Al Majarrah Gallery.
Art aficionados will be whirling with excitement when they enter the first floor of the building. The entire section of the first floor is devoted to Islamic Art and has four spacious galleries bound to confuse Art enthusiasts on just where to start. Perhaps one should start with the stunning images of the artistic achievements by the calligraphers, or maybe it’s the artisans. Regardless, these galleries will take visitors on a journey of artistic discovery that started from the early Islamic period all the way to modern times.
Before exiting, do take some time to admire the oldest known pearl in the world housed in the museum.
Ras Al Khaimah National Museum, Ras Al Khaimah
Established in 1986, Ras Al Khaimah National Museum used to serve as the ruling family’s residence. Located close to the Mohammed bin Salim Mosque at the western edge of the emirate, the National Museum of Ras Al Khaimah is a monument historic fort in the northern emirate.
A unique aspect of this museum that sets it apart from the other museums in the list is that the exhibit rooms of the museum are all pleasantly situated around the inner courtyard. One has to pass through the traditionally carved heavy wooden door to access the area.
The collections contain discoveries from the earliest settlers through to the late Islamic period. Colourful fragments of glass bangles, broken shards of beautifully painted utensils, life like dioramas and old boats on display are some of the artefacts that catch your attention.
All together, the interactive ethnographical display shows traditional life in the Emirate, pearl diving, date agriculture, fishing, farming and ancient architecture.
Do sit beside the life like model selling necessities and take photographs to make memories, since the museum doesn’t prohibit one from doing so.
Take a seat on the benches erected in the middle of the courtyard, and relax under the shade of the trees. Just sitting there, one can observe a number of rooms of the museum that are lined around.
One interesting fact about the museum is that many of the historic artefacts displayed in the museum have been donated by the ruling Quwasim family and residents of Ras Al Khaimah.
Once inside the museum, you will be meet with arrays of miniature and life size dioramas, artefacts, antiques, displays and boards inscribed with information beside each one of them. Take your time to go through them and you will get an insightful revelation with the different phases of Dubai’s transformation that followed the oil boom in the 1960s