The Magic Lantern: A Private Tour Of The Dubai Moving Image Museum

Dubai now has a brand new museum that will be of interest to the whole family. I was invited for a private tour of the Dubai Moving Image Museum (DMIM), which recently opened in the TECOM neighborhood. DMIM is entirely made up of the private collection of Akram Miknas, the Chairman of advertising firm MCN, and presents the development of visual entertainment leading up to the invention of the cinema. Think all kinds of handmade, wooden marvels, funhouse mirrors, zoetropes, peepshows, and other antique gadgets with pleasingly complicated names that will twist your tongue. Many of the exhibits are interactive—I got to practice my shadow puppet skills and played with some goofy fun house mirrors, which alternately made me look like a super model and a stumpy troll.

Dubai Moving Image Museum is located in the MCN building in Dubai's TECOM neighborhood

Dubai Moving Image Museum is located in the MCN building in Dubai’s TECOM neighborhood

Bubbly Museum Manager Mandy Aridi gives one heck of a personalized tour—she knows every single detail about the collection and brings it alive with infectious excitement. For an extra fee, guests can book a tour with Mandy, and I highly recommend this extra as her explanations and anecdotes were what really made me fall in love with the collection. She also showed me how to use some of the replicas on display, which would bring a lot of enjoyment to students or younger museum-goers.

Although, most of the collection has European origins, four displays refer to the Middle East. I was surprised to learn that the father of the camera was in fact 11th century Arab scholar Al Hazen, who first studied (and documented the function of) the camera obscura in the 11th century. He was famous for creating the first dark room, which he called “Al Qumra.”

Al Hazen, the father of the camera

Al Hazen, the father of the camera

Al Hazen's "Al Qumra," the earliest known version of a dark room

Al Hazen’s “Al Qumra,” the earliest known version of a dark room

Several 19th century displays romanticize the Middle East with typical Orientalist imagery. There is a 19th century diorama set from London titled, “Caravan to Mecca.” The rarest piece in the museum is a German toy magic lantern c. 1860 with a 1001 Arabian Nights theme. First developed in the 1700’s, well before the invention of the lightbulb, the magic lantern used candlelight and a concave mirror to project hand painted images. It is considered the precursor to the film projector.

Mandy explained: “People would be called magic lanternists. They still exist today. They would travel the countryside visiting towns and putting on a show. It would include storytellers and musicians.” The entire community would turn up for an evening with the magic lantern, gasping at the wonders, which were often supernatural in nature, as this was the era of the gothic novel and obsession with monsters and spirits was at an all time high. Fingers crossed that DMIM brings a magic lanternist to Dubai sometime soon.

The German Magic Toy Lantern, circa 1860

The German Magic Toy Lantern, circa 1860

19th century diorama from London called, "The Caravan to Mecca

19th century diorama from London called, “The Caravan to Mecca.

Akram Miknas is the head of a major company and regularly on the list of top power players in the Gulf. However, when I shook his hand at the Dubai Moving Image Museum (he happened to drop by and I was lucky to meet him) and began to enquire about his collection, his serious face turned to childlike happy and open. It has been the apple of his eye for more than 25 years and at last he has the chance to share it with the public.

The Kaiser Panorama used to be a pub amusement. A man would sit in the chair and as the Kaiser circled he would peer through the peep hole and be treated to a group of photographs

The Kaiser Panorama used to be a pub amusement. A man would sit in the chair and as the Kaiser circled he would peer through the peep hole and be treated to a group of photographs

When I asked him to define the connection between advertising and his obsession with the history of the moving image, he put it very clearly: “To find a piece, I have to wait 3,4,5 years and send my antiques dealer Pierre Patau out on a quest (I’ve been working with the same fellow since the beginning). They are that rare now. I began collecting because I wanted to find an explanation for why man is curious about movement. We are always trying to accelerate our pace and this collection documents that journey.”

If you are a lover of film or photography, a trip to DMIM is highly recommended. If you are a parent with school age children, your kids will genuinely enjoy learning about a slower era in which hand crafted toys occupied the entire family for evenings at home, gathered around the fire.

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Good Ideas: The museum does charge an admissions fee, which is a bit steep, but is worth the cost. They also have a reasonably priced membership program which might make more sense if you are planning on returning more than once or bringing along your out of town visitors in the future. There is a trendy café right downstairs, which, in combination with the tour could make for a lovely afternoon out.

For information about timings and events visit their fantastic website here.