I’m not a musically inclined person. I don’t play an instrument—even after eight years of piano lessons as a kid. I’m also not one to listen to Pandora while I’m working or doing housework. I think I can carry a tune, but if you ask my teenage children they’d decidedly say the opposite.
For all these reasons, the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) wasn’t high on my list of must-see priorities during a research trip to Phoenix last year. My thinking: “Do I really need to look at a bunch of trumpets, guitars and xylophones?” Ho, hum.
Boy, was I ever wrong.
This dynamic and interactive museum was one of the most entertaining museums I’ve ever visited. Built in 2010, the ultra-modern facility offers some of the latest self-guided-tour technology for museum guests, and its sheer size (200,000 square feet on two floors) is impressive.
Most notable is what’s inside the exhibit halls: about 6,500 instruments and associated objects from all over the world. And I mean, all over the world—more than 200 countries and territories across the globe are represented, with authentic instruments directly from their places of origin, many of them centuries old.
Viewfinder Tip: Plan to spend half a day at MIM, simply given the amount of exhibits to enjoy. The average visit lasts nearly four hours.
While marveling at the range of exhibits, I liked to stop and admire some of the older pieces (each is marked with an instrument name, origin, and date), to picture in my mind someone halfway around the world in the 18th century, lovingly playing the instrument, and wonder how it ended up in Phoenix, Arizona. Imagine if those instruments could talk?
Here are five reasons why I think every visitor to Phoenix needs to make a beeline to the Musical Instrument Museum.
It has the coolest audio tour ever
At most museums, you need to activate the audio guide to hear its commentary. At MIM, you have headphones attached to a compact receiver that is completely automatic. Hidden identifiers installed at more than 300 exhibits cue the audio guides automatically, so when you walk next to the exhibit, the correct “soundtrack” immediately plays in your ears. Walk away from the exhibit, and it fades out. No fumbling with buttons on the receiver!
Irish dance dress from the early 20th century
This wireless technology delivers not only the sounds of the instruments in action, but also interesting commentary about the making or cultural significance of the instruments themselves. The audio often is associated with video screens, too, so visitors not only listen to a concert or cultural performance, but watch it. I appreciated seeing the instruments “in action” in their original settings.
All musical genres are represented; there’s something for everyone
Instruments at the MIM are categorized into five geographic galleries. So if you want to, say, explore ancient bronze drums from Vietnam and Javanese gongs, you’d head to the Asia and Oceania gallery. If you’d like to relive your recent trip to South America, walk over to the Latin American collection to admire a complete ensemble of Andean panpipes.
I stuck with the familiar, and checked out the United States and Canada gallery, where I saw (and heard) exhibits that included historic Steinway pianos, impressive college marching bands, Native American music, New Orleans Jazz, and the Appalachian dulcimer, to name just a few.
To note: The vast majority of instruments are not behind glass, but in the open air for close-up examination. And fashionistas will appreciate the impressive number of native costumes on display, from Mexican mariachi-band outfits to Irish dance dresses to Japanese kimonos. Truly, visitors don’t just learn about world music at MIM, but also about world cultures.
Taylor Swift, Elvis Presley, John Lennon
I spent the bulk of my time at MIM in the Artist Gallery, where I totally geeked out at the amazing popular-music memorabilia. Some of the goodies on display included the piano on which John Lennon composed “Imagine” (that one is behind glass!) and the guitar Elvis Presley used in his very last concert in 1977.
John Lennon tickled those ivories!
While standing in front of one of the drums from the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, I watched (on a video) the amazing synchronized drum performance that took place during the opening ceremony. While following along with the lyrics Roy Orbison wrote to, “Oh Pretty Woman” on a yellow sheet of paper, I listened Orbison sing the song. And while I started at a beaded gown of Taylor Swift’s, I watched Tay-Tay strut around a concert stage wearing the exact dress. It was a multi-sensual experience, and one I recommend to American music lovers of all ages.
You can make your own music
After you refrain from touching all of the phenomenal musical displays, it’s only natural to want to bang on some drums or strum some strings before leaving the museum. Thankfully, there’s a hands-on Experience Gallery featuring harps, gongs, tambourines, guitars, and a nifty theremin (this is an early electronic musical instrument). Children especially like to have fun with the instruments here, so go in with an open mind and be ready to hear all sorts of notes and noises!
The global café is excellent
Visitors can take a break from browsing instruments from all over the world to sample food from all over the world in Café Allegro in an open and airy space on the ground floor of the museum. The casual, self-serve restaurant features soups, salads, sandwiches, and bakery treats, all made from scratch. There also is a rotating menu of globally inspired entrees, such as Italian sausages, Swedish meatballs, and Nordic lamb. Farm-to-fork ingredients are highlighted on weekly menus, with some vegetables coming from local farms only 10 miles away. Once you’ve filled up on great-tasting, wholesome foods, you’ll be ready to head back to the one-of-a-kind musical experience that is Phoenix’s Musical Instrument Museum.
What’s your favorite museum and why?