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The Dubai Museum is a must-see attraction in Dubai, not only for the ancient building in which it is housed, but also for its engaging exhibits.

The museum's collection vividly charts Dubai's rapid progress from a tiny pre-oil fishing and pearling village - and one of the world's first free-trade ports - through to the Arabian metropolis it is today. A couple of hours spent here before exploring the rest of Dubai really help give a sense of the city's speed of evolution. Housed in the majestic Al-Fahidi Fort, built to defend Dubai Creek around 1787, it is the oldest building in the area. The structure is made from sea rocks and gypsum, and served as both residence to Dubai's rulers and the seat of government until 1971, when it became a museum.

Its manageable size and entertaining exhibits give you a quick and comprehensive introduction to Dubai's history, culture and traditions. Apart from the kitsch dioramas and disturbingly lifelike mannequins, highlights include finds from the Al-Qusais archaeological site dating back to between 2500 BC and 500 BC.

Visitors enjoy posing with the disconcertingly lifelike mannequins in the museum's whimsical dioramas. Leading the Bedouin's beloved beast of burden seems to be the most popular photo opportunity, but try to resist playing Indiana Jones with the safari-suited archaeologists. The long-suffering guards have given up trying to stop people posing for photos with the kitsch mannequins - so fire away.

In the fort's courtyard are several small wooden boats and traditional barasti (palm-leaf) houses, including the primitive Al Kaimah, and the summerhouse Al Areesh with traditional wind-tower (barajeel) "air conditioning". Step inside and test it out - you'll really notice the difference if visiting on a balmy day. Within the fort's walls are fascinating weapon displays featuring beautiful old silver khanjars (curved daggers) with camel-bone decoration, and swords inscribed with calligraphy. You will also find exhibits on traditional Emirati dances and musical instruments. Don't miss the shekhlelah, a skirt hung with goat's hooves that makes music when you shake your hips.

The real treats are found in the underground museum exhibits beneath the fort, featuring a multimedia presentation on Dubai's extraordinary development through the series of dioramas brought to life by excellent use of audio and hologram-like video projections.

The vivid scenes represent life in the souq, Islam, education, social life, architecture, costumes and jewellery, the desert and oasis, water and survival, and the popular "underwater" sea exhibition.

Explanations are provided in Arabic and English.

© Lonely Planet. All rights reserved. The article ‘The Dubai Museum: Charting the rise of the emirate’ was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.

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