The first exhibition to be hosted at Dubai’s Etihad Museum will feature the country’s postal history from 1909 until its unification. Organisers pledge that it will be a virtual tour back in time, as each stamp marks a key event.
Visitors under the age of 15 have a lot of questions about the first item at an exhibition dedicated to the history of Emirates Post.
Although it is iconic the world over, they don’t seem to know what it is.
“I tell them it is a mailbox,” says Mohammed Yousif, who then demonstrates using a letter with a stamp by sliding it through the opening of the arched metallic red exterior.
“Children are in awe of this.”
The Emirates Post employee, who has worked in the postal industry for 42 years, is one person visitors can meet at the exhibition titled Emirates to the World: Postal History from 1909 to Unification, which is running at Etihad Museum in Dubai.
It is the first exhibition to be hosted by the museum since it opened in January and will run until April 30.
Yousif has set up shop in a replica Emirates Post office, where he is surrounded by recent local stamps issued by Emirates Post.
They are all for sale, including the latest commemorative Etihad Museum stamps, which sell for Dh3.
“When they come here, the youngest get excited by the stamps, as they notice the details and the art that goes into them,” he says.
The exhibition also features a series of workshops to introduce children to philately running on February 25 and March 11 from 2pm to 5pm.
The price is included in the museum entrance fee.
Youngsters aged 5 to 15 can enjoy what has been called the “hobby of kings”, designing their own stamps on postcards and learning about the methods, tools and colours used in stamp design.
They can send what they make anywhere in the world via Yousif’s fully-functioning postal stand.
“Participants can produce their very own works of art and share them with friends and family, inspiring them to embrace a stamp collecting hobby,” said Abdulla bin Massam Al Falasi, director of Etihad Museum.
While children get creative, adults can take a tour of the exhibition and its rare treasures.
Perusing the collection is like a trip back in time, with each stamp marking important anniversaries, events and figures.
Before 1909, the region’s rulers had their own private murasiloon, Arabic for messengers, who would deliver their letters in person.
There were postmen, or tarish, who would memorise and recite messages, “kaytub” being scribes for the sheikhs and “karani” for ordinary people.
Official postal services started in 1909 in Dubai, as part of the postal services of the British India Empire.
The postal route changed constantly until the unification of the UAE in 1971, dictated by world events and developments in transport, such as the arrival of airmail service in 1932 via Sharjah airport.
The postal administration overseeing this area reflected the political powers of the time.
With the partition of India by the British in 1947, the postal services administration was transferred to Pakistan that same year in August, before postal management moved to British administration in April of 1948.
From 1961 until unification, individual emirates administered their post.
Alongside a large map highlighting the different routes, visitors can study intricate reprints of stamps of the steamships and planes that once carried letters to and from the UAE.
There are stamps of British monarchs, including King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II, exotic flowers, insects, animals, mythical characters, the Rulers of the UAE, 35th US president John F Kennedy and the pan-Arab leader, the Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser.
“You are bound to find your favourite stamp,” says Abdullah Khoory, president of the Emirates Philatelic Association, whose private collection of stamps and letters have been lent out to the exhibition. Besides their artistic and historic values, stamps were also used for patriotic, educational and public health awareness campaigns.
“Each stamp and letter tells us an important story of this country and the culture. We find out the economic state, the currencies in use and the interests of the time, like for example, the health awareness stamps on Malaria [issued 1963 in Dubai] reflect how it was a concern then,” says Mr Khoory, who is now 55 and has been collecting professional for over 30 years.
In 1963, Dubai also issued the first set of stamps announcing the formation of the Trucial States. The Emirate of Sharjah issued its first stamps in the same year; and in 1964, the emirates of Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Umm Al Quwain, Ras Al Khaimah and Fujairah issued their own stamps.
“The stamps were like each emirate’s mass media, its communication to the world, how they wanted to be seen and represented,” says Khoory.
“What they printed often had nothing to do with the actual emirate, from penguins to dinosaurs to space ships, they were quite unique and fun. Some of it was tied to what was popular in the world at that time.”
As an example of the effort that went into the design of a stamp, a series of sketches show the process that followed when then-Ruler of Sharjah, Sheikh Saqr bin Sultan Al Qassimi, commissioned his philately adviser, the American Bruce Conde, to draw his portrait and put it on the stamp.
Conde included a map and a flag, as well as a falcon, reflective of the sheikh’s name, Saqer, which translates to falcon.
The sheikh then appointed Harrison & Sons, a British stamp design firm, to use the Conde design to produce the final stamp, which was issued on July 10, 1963.
“You need to pause and look closely at each stamp and letter here. One of the most common things I found written in all the letters sent out of here abroad was how hot it is and how brown they are getting from the sun,” says Mr Khoory.
“I guess it was always hot here, especially during the summer.”
Besides the actual stamps, there are unique old photos and tools used by the postal services, making the exhibition a true journey back into the UAE’s postal past.
“What we hope from this exhibition is to inspire a new generation of stamp lovers and to attract adults who may have come across stamps, but haven’t had a really good look at them until now,” he says.
“There is a special stamp out there for everyone: for the engineer, for the artist, for the writer, for the doctor, for the teenager and for the child. For everyone.”
Etihad Museum is open daily from 10am to 8pm; general admission is Dh25, Dh10 for children.
To learn more about Emirates to the World: Postal History from 1909 to Unification, which is on until April 30, call Etihad Museum at 04 5155771 or visit etihadmuseum.dubaiculture.ae
Five things not to miss at the exhibition
Here are five things not to miss at the Emirates to the World: Postal History from 1909 to Unification exhibition:
• In the Masterpieces section, dedicated to rarities, check out the colourful and creative Ras Al Khaimah’s 1,001 Arabian Nights stamp series of “wallpaper stamps”, which were issued especially for collectors and the philatelic market. Those on display are unusual because they contain double overprinting, where the first was too faint and so was repeated, resulting in a ghost effect.
• Also in the Masterpieces section, check out one of the oldest objects in the collection, a canceled letter dating from 1910. It is the earliest recoded cancel sent from Dubai to Bahrain, and features a stamp costing one “anna”, which was a unit of currency unit formerly used in India and Pakistan.
• Take a moment to actually read some of the letters and postcards on display. One such postcard written to a Mrs M Danks in Scotland shows the “Great Mosque of Dubai” – a white and red minaret peeking out from behind traditional homes. “Hello darling, I am in the Trucial States in the gulf. Very hot and I want to come home. Love and miss you, got you a present, letter following.”
• In the “stamp salon”, visitors are given a special light and challenged to spot printing errors, unusual shapes and forgeries.
• Don’t miss the UAE’s first definitive collection as one nation, issued in 1973. There were 12 in total, featuring a map and the UAE’s falcon crest. Other designs represented landmarks across the seven emirates, including Abu Dhabi’s Al Maqtaa bridge, Dubai’s the Clock Tower monument, the landscape of Khor Fakkan of Sharjah, Ruler’s Palace in Ajman, Khor Khuwair in Ras Al Khaimah, Bithna fort in Fujairah and Falaj Al Mu’alla in Umm Al Quwain.
* Rym Ghazal