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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 20 August 2018

The museum hidden in a Dubai tower 

From shadow theatre to the latest 3D technology, the Dubai Moving Image Museum has it all

A shadow theatre on display at the Dubai Moving Image Museum in Dubai Sarah Dea / The National
A shadow theatre on display at the Dubai Moving Image Museum in Dubai Sarah Dea / The National

Nestled inconspicuously in a typical business tower in Barsha Heights, Dubai Moving Image Museum is an oasis of calm amid the constant buzz of traffic and tourists around the district.

This hidden gem may not attract the same attention as tourist hotspots like the Burj Khalifa or Palm Jumeirah, but it’s a great place to while away an afternoon, and it offers a fascinating and educational look at our relationship with the moving image as a way of telling a story.

From the earliest forms of shadow theatre to the peep shows and camera obscuras of the pre-cinema age, right through to exhibits on the very latest in 3D and virtual reality technology, the museum’s 300-plus exhibits – the largest collection of its kind in the region – offer a fascinating insight into the lengths mankind will go to to tell stories.

The museum’s collection is actually the private collection of businessman Akram Miknas, chairman of the advertising and marketing giant Middle East Communications Network (MCN), and is, appropriately enough, housed on the first floor of the company’s head office in MCN Hive.

The collection is divided into four sections, covering shadow play, moving pictures and animation, magic lanterns, and image projection and stereoscopy. Among the exhibits, there are also trivia gems to be found within the walls of the museum.

Did you know that the Arab world is the root of the very word camera, from the Arabic qumra, or private room? According to the story, the great Arab explorer Ahmad Ibn Majid found himself in prison in Egypt, where he observed images from the outside world being projected onto the wall of his cell (or qumra) through a pinhole in the opposite wall. The camera was born.

Museum assistant Malone Makau has been working at the Dubai Moving Image Museum for about six months, and despite being a relative newcomer, says he has already dedicated plenty of time to familiarising himself with the intriguing objects and exhibits within the museum.

“My favourite section is the stereoscopy section,” Makau says. “Stereoscopy is the predecessor to 3D technology. It involves the combination of two almost identical images; one on the left, the other on the right, just like stereo headphones. The differences between the left and right image are minimal but significant. Standard 3D films are made using two cameras next to each other in order to mimic human sight using two eyes. Stereoscopic images are made using this same process. Stereoscopic lenses combine the left and right images to produce a 3D image.”

Many of the museum’s exhibits are fully interactive, allowing visitors to view the workings of an 18th century Dutch peep box viewer or turn the reel of an early 20th century mutoscope and watch the flickering images that result.

The museum is also committed to supporting more current forms of storytelling, through initiatives such as jointly organising and hosting the One Page Comic Competition in collaboration with the Middle East Film and Comic Con, and holding occasional evenings of storytelling, poetry reading or musical entertainment, and even offers itself out as an unusual venue for meetings, corporate events and even kids’ parties, should you happen to have a child with a fascination for the earliest iterations of what we would ultimately come to know as cinema.

It’s certainly an unusual, educational alternative to jelly and ice cream and the latest Marvel offering.

In the spirit of graffiti artist Banksy, visitors are invited to “exit through the gift shop” where, rather than the usual pens and keyrings offered through the medium, you can pick up a host of cinema-related gadgets and goodies, from lo-fi flick books and pinhole cameras to memorabilia from the best of world cinema – it’s certainly a world away from the usual mall offerings.

I have a fascination with all things cinematic, which probably borders on the obsessive, and from an early age I have been unnaturally obsessed with automata shows, shadow theatres and their ilk.

While my childhood friends were raving about their latest Atari game, I was happy learning about the Seven Wonders of the World through the viewfinders of my Sawyer’s Viewmaster stereoscope.

You don’t have to be as sad as me to be enriched by a visit to the Dubai Moving Image Museum, though – everybody loves a good movie, even a couple-of-centuries-old one that only lasts for a matter of seconds, right?

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Disguising the desert: Why Hollywood uses fake locations when filming

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