Music in the Desert: The Musical Instrument Museum
I don’t play an instrument, I’m not a good singer, and I’ve been accused of having no sense of rhythm. Nonetheless, I love music. Whether musical talent flows through every nerve in your body, or your musical skills and aspirations are more akin to mine, you’ll want to visit the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, Arizona.
Credit: Richard Bauman
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The MIM is an inviting place with a spacious reception area, and floor to ceiling windows that flood the room with natural lighting. And it’s a visitor’s starting point to the two-story, 192,000 square foot extravaganza dedicated to telling the musical history and displaying the instruments of virtually every continent and region of the world from Africa to the Vatican.
My wife, Donna, says it is more like a library of musical instruments rather than a museum. It’s about the history of musical instruments, and about music and the connecting of people through music.
At the reception desk you are handed a small a radio receiver and a set of earphones that brings the museum’s exhibits to life. As you near an exhibit your earphones fill with the music of the instruments in that exhibit. You not only see the actual instruments of that region, but you also hear the music they produce, and you can even watch them being played via high quality videos on flat panel monitors.
The Orientation Gallery’s major exhibit depicts the universality of the guitar. A sign in the gallery sets the museum’s theme: “Music follows the pathways of human movement.” There are no less than 25 guitars, old and new, from all parts of the world.
A sign in the gallery claims guitars have been manufactured on every continent except Antarctica. Guitar makers have crafted instruments from wood, metal, plastic and other materials, and they range in design from simple to ornate. Regardless of where made, the materials of construction, and who made them they bear strong resemblance to one another.
Most of the museum’s other galleries are on the second floor: Africa, Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia, Oceania and Latin America, are on the building’s north side, and on the south side are the Europe and United States/Canada galleries. You can visit each gallery or just the ones of interest to you.
All of the museum’s galleries are well lighted with spacious wide aisles, which make it easy to see exhibits and move about the museum.
All cultures have certain things in common, music and art being two of them. And even when regions are separated by great distances, often there are similarities in instruments.
For example, in South Korea and regions of Africa the people use hourglass drums in rituals and ceremonies. And in Columbia, there’s the Marimba xylophone made from wood and gourds, which is akin to the Gyil xylophone used by the Dagara people in Ghana. There are also similarities between Tibetan and Swiss Horns. And drums are a part of nearly every culture’s musical montage.
The musical history of the United States and Canada comprise one of the museum’s largest galleries. It’s expansive and explores the different kinds of instruments and styles of music from North America.
For example, there are regions of the United States where bluegrass and country music flourish, and other places where polka music is the musical mainstay. But musical styles aren’t confined to particular regions. You can hear country music in Los Angeles, and symphonies in Nashville.
Many exhibits also share the history of a music style. For example, Bluegrass became a music style of its own only after World War II. It was a hybrid of old-time Appalachian music, country music and church hymns.
One of the largest exhibits in the U.S./Canada gallery is dedicated to Steinway Pianos. After seeing the care and craftsmanship that goes into each Steinway grand piano, and its 12,000 pieces, it’s easy to see why Steinways are the favorite instrument for many pianists.
The Martin Guitar Company exhibit shows the creation of guitars—from how wood is selected for the various parts of a guitar right up to the final polishing of an instrument.
The Canada gallery has fine examples of early harpsichords, forerunner to the piano. Did you know there’s more than one kind of bagpipe? In the World of Bagpipes exhibit, in the Canada gallery, there are numerous examples of this ancient instrument from such diverse places as Egypt, Spain and Sweden.
Credit: Richard Bauman
Click image to enlarge.
FIRST FLOOR GALLERIES
On the museum’s lower level there are two additional galleries you’ll want to see —the Experience Gallery and the Artist Gallery.
The Artist Gallery focuses on numerous musicians, their instruments, and their contribution to the advancement of music. John Lennon bought an upright Steinway piano in December 1970. It is on display, in a protective glass box. Lennon probably composed many songs on it, but perhaps the best known is Imagine, released in 1971, which is a plea for world peace.
Other artists featured in the gallery include Eric Clapton, Paul Simon, Dick Dale, Carlos Santana and George Benson. Each artist’s exhibit has music clips featuring their favorite instruments, and some information about their contribution to music.
In the Artist Gallery there’s an exhibit titled, “Kitchen Piano.” In it is a single large instrument made from a reddish dark wood. It’s the first Steinway grand piano. It’s called the Kitchen Piano because Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg (later changed to Steinway) built it in the kitchen of his home in Seesen, Germany, in 1836.
The Experience Gallery is the museum’s playground. It contains dozens of musical instruments akin to many in the museum’s various exhibits. They range from tiny ukuleles to a 7-foot diameter Chinese gong, along with numerous examples of harps, guitars, xylophone type instruments, rattles and drums—to name a few.
In all other galleries it’s strictly hands off the instruments. The Experience Gallery is the “touch me” venue. Whether you’re a toddler, senior citizen, or someplace in between, you are encouraged to handle and play the instruments: go ahead pluck the strings of a harp, play drums from Africa, and ring out a tune on a wooden xylophone—not to mention taping the Chinese gong and in the process creating a “mighty sound.”
THE MUSEUM’S INCEPTION
The Musical Instrument Museum was the idea of Robert Ulrich, former president and CEO of Target. From fuzzy notion to opening day, April 24, 2010, it took just four and half years—and millions of dollars—to bring the MIM to the Arizona desert.
To fill the museum with instruments five curators, one for each major region of the world, and their staffs traveled extensively to search out unique pieces. There are 3000 instruments on display at any given time (the museum has more than 10,000 instruments) and periodically instruments are taken out of exhibits and other instruments replace them.
In addition to the galleries, there’s also a 299-seat theater where concerts and other performances take place on a regular basis.
Whether you’re marveling over the immense Octobasse, studying a miniature harp or wondering how one plays a gigantic raft flute, you never feel rushed or pushed along. The MIM’s spaciousness gives you the opportunity to linger at those exhibits that captivate you, and skip those that don’t interest you so much. You can go through the museum and then, if you like, return to those exhibits that are of greatest interest to you. Need something to eat or drink? The MIM has a coffee shop and a top-rated restaurant.
The Musical Instrument Museum is a gem in the Arizona desert. You’ll find it at 4725 E. Mayo Blvd. (Southwest corner of Tatum Blvd and E. Mayo Blvd.). Give yourself plenty of time to experience this museum. Many visitors spend four or more hours there. It’s open every day 9:00 a.m.– 5:00 p.m. Wheelchair access is excellent.
For additional information, special programs and current admission prices, call (480) 478-6000.
Richard Bauman has been a freelance writer for more than 30 years. He enjoys
writing about unusual places and events and the people involved in them. His
latest book is ''Pranks in Print—A Collection of Fake Stories, Phony Ads, and other
Media Mischief''. He and his wife, Donna, have been married 55 years, and call
West Covina, Calif., home. His website is www.richardjbauman.com.