The building is a classic example of a traditional Gulf mansion, with imposing but largely windowless exterior walls (except at the front) and rooms arranged around a large sandy courtyard with a couple of trees in the middle – a miniature desert at the heart of an urban mansion. Each of the rooms is enlivened with exhibits evoking aspects of traditional Emirati life. Mannequins loll around on cushions drinking coffee in the main majlis, where male guests were traditionally received, business was conducted and news exchanged, while in the ladies’ majlis a child has her hands painted with henna while others spin thread, work on their embroidery or grind spices. Finely carved teak doors with stylized palm and floral motifs lead into the main room (al makhzan), where further mannequins in rich traditional dress and jewellery pose amid incongruous Western imports, including an old gramophone, a wireless and a Seth Thomas clock – the unintentionally comic signs admonishing visitors to “Please keep away from the exhibits” may be taken with the appropriate pinch of salt.
One of the city’s oldest museums, and still one of its best, the engaging Heritage House offers the most complete picture of everyday life in old Dubai you’ll find anywhere in town. The house was originally built in 1890 and subsequently enlarged at various times over the next fifty years, most notably in 1910 by the pearl merchant Sheikh Mohammed bin Ahmed bin Dalmouk, who was also responsible for establishing Al Ahmadiya School next door.