In one of my whinier moments, I actually said to my husband last week, “But I don’t wanna go to the mall today!” And like any good parent, he immediately suggested something educational, “Why don’t you go to the Othman Museum.”
The Beit al-Othman Museum has been on my Kuwait bucket list, but with time running out, I wasn’t sure I was going to make it. Plus, in all honesty, I was hoping for some company. Not that my daughter isn’t great company, but a 15-month-old can only find so much amusement in wacky dioramas or hysterical misspellings. But we can have fun on our own too, so off we went. The museum is the newest of Kuwait’s collection of museums, opening in February of this year. I found an online description of it, that stated:
This large historic house, built in the late 1940s, was turned into a museum of the heritage and history of Kuwait. Currently, it includes the Kuwaiti House Museum, the Maritime Museum, the Heritage Hall, the Drama Museum, the Journey of Life Museum, and Museum of Historical Machinery.
Hmm, sounds intriguing. So, Bean and I parked the car and I gathered up the umbrella stroller. As we entered through the side door an Arab woman followed us in. I paused at the small desk where a guard sat, but he immediately began addressing the woman behind me, so Bean and I just continued walking in. Then another guard, speaking English, called me back and said I had to pay 1kd to enter. As I was getting out the money, I overheard the other woman say in Arabic something about “looking” or “seeing” and she was waving her arms about which lead me to assume she was telling them she “Just wanted to look around.” (I’m telling you, if everyone in the world suddenly lost their arms and lost the ability to make facial expressions, I couldn’t understand a thing in any language!)
As I paid the 1kd, the woman slipped by me and went in, so I said with a bit of a snide tone, “What about her? Only I have to pay?” I know, obnoxious. But after five years in the Middle East, and always being charged more for being a Westerner, I just had to say something. It didn’t matter, they ignored me and I paid.
Since it was early on a Thursday morning, there were very few people in the museum, so as Bean and I explored we inevitably kept bumping into the Arab woman. By the third time, we both laughed and smiled, and found ourselves chatting about Bean.
The main room of the museum, which used to be a house, is a huge open courtyard that at one time might have been open to the elements. But they’ve thankfully put a roof over it and air conditioned it nicely. Then off of this room are other little rooms. Some as small as a closet, others with multiple rooms attached. And these are the other “museums.”
The first one we entered was about 4’x 8’ and was the POW Museum; dedicated to all the prisoners of war and included a fairly morose skeleton display. Then there was the Emir Museum, with paintings lining the walls of all Kuwait’s Emirs, and the Currency Museum, which showed Kuwait’s currency history. This was where it finally sunk in for me just how young a country Kuwait is. Up until 1961, they were using Indian rupees for currency. But when they gained their independence from the British, they finally minted their own bills and coins (Kuwaiti dinars and fills), and the displays showed the various printings over the last 50+ years.
Each side room was small, but had nice displays and even some descriptions in English (though most were in Arabic). We wandered through the drama displays, showing famous television and movie stars and displaying their costumes or props from (apparently) famous scenes. In the US, it would be like seeing Lucille Ball’s chocolate factory outfit on display, or Mr. Rogers' sweater.
At the back of the main room there was a hallway that led to a mock-up of an old Kuwaiti house – long before the days of the ludicrously large villas. There was also a street scene of sorts, with little shops lining the edges, selling books or food or Coca-Cola. We saw the history of the Kuwait Oil Company as well as some rather horrifying photos of the oil rigs burning when Saddam retreated.
There was an amusing display of Kuwait Airlines, showing the history of the flight attendants’ outfits throughout the years. Short skirts in the 50s and 60s, but come the 80s and long filmy jackets (almost robe-like) covered the ornately gilded uniforms. Frankly I think they’d be a pain to wear on a plane and serve fruit juice in, but what do I know.
In the room for the Kuwait Department of the Interior (and you feared there wouldn’t be one!), there was even a display of the history of the car registration forms over the years – riveting stuff, I tell ya – as well as a display right out of CSI Kuwait’s crime scene kit. Despite any unintended campy-ness, it was a well put together museum. Everything was displayed nicely and most things were labeled.
The one thing, and you knew there would be, was the mannequins. They were everywhere! The ones displaying uniforms or fight attendant outfits or sitting in a tank were fine. It was the random ones placed throughout the museum that I found a bit disturbing. Several times, I had to look twice to see if one was a real security guard, or a mannequin posing authentically.
As we entered the area with the little shops, I glanced up and saw a man and woman on the second floor peering down on us. It was only seconds later that I realized they were mannequins. Why would there be mannequins up there?
But the weirdest of all were the man, dressed like the ground crew at an airport, and a woman seemingly perched on a flying carpet above us. She was holding one end of a rope with the other dangling down just out of our reach. I have no idea of the significance, but it was strange; just very strange.
But marginally-creepy mannequins aside, I could recommend swinging by and spending an hour winding in and out of the little rooms. It’s very stroller-friendly, which was nice, and was air conditioned, which is important in the Kuwait summers. So, for those interested, the museum is located in Hawally on Abdullah Al-Othman Street and they are open 9:30a-12:30p and 4:30p-9:00p, every day except Fridays. Pictures are allowed and there’s allegedly a café inside (though I think I was too distracted by the mannequins to find it), and if you come dressed in authentic Kuwait garb, you may be able to get in for free.