There's something undeniably charming about the Al Ain National Museum. It's nestled between date palms and one-storey buildings; its exhibits feature life-size dolls made of papier-mâché; and the artefacts are accompanied by handwritten notecards. The museum, often overlooked for the popular Al Ain Palace Museum, is tucked away on the edge of the Al Ain Oasis near the Eastern Fort, a sprawling haven of lush trees and waterways. It is organised into two sections: ethnographical, focusing on the recent history of the UAE, and archaeological, covering the ancient history of the area.
Salah Sulaiman, a statistician in his 30th year of service at the museum, explains that the archaeological section conducts annual excavations all over the emirate of Abu Dhabi to keep a constant lookout for new discoveries. Most recently, the team found a 1,900-year-old amphora (two-handled jar) in a falaj (water channel) in February. It now sits on display in a brand-new glass case. The museum has several other gems. There is a mini flag of the UAE, which a US Apollo mission carried to the Moon back in 1972, strengthening ties between the two nations. Under a piece of Moon rock lies a congratulatory note signed by Richard Nixon. Who knew that the UAE was represented on the Moon when it was only one year old?
Then there's the 15-metre ancient well in the floor of the building, which is the centrepiece of one of the displays. The late Sheikh Zayed had the museum built around the well, in order to preserve what was once the main source of water for the fort's settlements. The archaeological section holds even more treasures. A little clay jar tucked away unpretentiously in a corner is actually the carrier of 302 Persian silver coins from the 17th century: found lying in the sand near Al Ain. Close by, numerous clay dishes and cutlery from the Northern Emirates are dated from the second and third centuries BC. Pictures of the Hili Archaeological Park adorn the walls; just 12 kilometres outside Al Ain, 4,000-year-old tombs filled with skeletons and their personal belongings were discovered four decades ago.
Of course, there is also an array of standard museum fare: glittering jewellery, embroidered dresses and gold-accented burkas, weaponry like the signature khanjar dagger and pearl-shelled ammunition pouches, technical equipment such as circumcision tools and flint stones, taxidermic wonders including stuffed falcons and a coin collection spanning all the Islamic states. Sulaiman estimates that the museum gets between 50 and 150 visitors per day during the peak months of May to October. Most of them are tourists who come to see the "heritage and civilisation" of the country.
The museum seems somewhat stuck in time, but in the good way that only museums can manage. It belongs to a quainter, quieter Emirates, where the nearest mall feels miles and miles away. The museum is open Tuesday to Saturday 8am-7.30pm, Fridays 3pm-7.30pm; closed Mondays. Admission is Dh3 for adults and Dh1 for children. For more information, call 03 764 1595.