Phoenix's Musical Instrument Museum's 15,000 instruments cover sound from around the globe
March 11, 2012 9:00 AM
The National "Glenwood 95" electric guitar's fiberglass body is meant to represent a stylized map of the United States.
A boy tries out some percussion at the Musical Instrument Museum.
The Harlem Gospel Choir performs in the MIM Music Theater.
South African guitar (plucked lute): Developed and commercialized from precedents such as the igogogo and ramkie by South African maker Graeme Wells (1961-2008).
A view of the Elvis Presley exhibit in MIM's Artist Gallery.
By Marylynne Pitz Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
PHOENIX -- Elvis is here, along with his sparkling jumpsuits and the last guitar he played in concert, a Martin D-28 acoustic. So is the plain upright piano John Lennon used to compose "Imagine."
These relics of musical virtuosos are behind glass in Arizona because the founder of the Musical Instrument Museum spends his winters in the desert sun instead of Minnesota, his other haunt. A visit to MIM is like stepping inside a giant sun-washed jukebox.
"Even kids 3 years old and up are just fine. They love the music," said Bill DeWalt, president of MIM and director of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in 2001-07.
After donning a Sennheiser headset, visitors are free to wander through the galleries. The headset syncs automatically to each instrument exhibit, which features audio and video of musicians performing on a flat-screen television. Hear the music of Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Oceania, Latin America, Europe, Canada and the United States.
Technology in the Sennheiser guideport system makes the museum possible. Every exhibit has a transmitter that is programmed for a certain distance.
The Musical Instrument Museum is about a 25-minute drive from the Phoenix airport, just south of Loop 101 at 4725 E. Mayo Blvd., Phoenix, AZ 85050. Its website is www.theMIM.org; phone: 1-480-478-6000.
MIM is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays; 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays. Adult admission is $15; seniors 65 and older are $13; visitors age 6 to 17 are $10, and children 5 and under are admitted free. MIM is closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.
An ideal place to stay is the Westin Kierland Resort & Spa in Scottsdale because it's close to MIM as well as Taliesen West and an easy walk to a development filled with shops and restaurants. The nine-year-old resort just completed a $20 million renovation of its guest rooms and ballrooms. Andrew Carnegie would love it here because at sunset, Michael McClanathan plays the bagpipes.
"Most of the clips are 30 seconds in length so you don't get bored," Mr. DeWalt said.
He left the Carnegie Museum of Natural History nine months before "Dinosaurs in Their Time," an updated look at those world-class specimens, opened in a new atrium in November 2007. A longtime fan of Brazilian music, he was looking for a new project, and Arizona's sunshine was an irresistible magnet to the then-60-year-old.
's collection consists of 15,000 instruments, 5,000 of which are on display. One of the most popular is the South African guitar made out of a Castrol oil can.
"The sound of it is just absolutely beautiful," Mr. DeWalt said. "It shows that people everywhere will try to find something that they can make into an instrument as an amplifier of human emotion."
One of the most dramatic examples is a large gold drum that produced rhythmic beats at the opening ceremonies for the Beijing Olympics of 2008.
MIM, which opened in the spring of 2010, is the brainchild of Robert Ulrich, a former chief executive officer of Target. He was strolling through the Place du Grand Sablon, a fashionable Brussels district, discussing plans to buy an Impressionist painting for a gallery bearing his name at the Minneapolis Institute for the Arts.
His art adviser, Marc L. Felix, said for the price of one Impressionist painting, Mr. Ulrich could build a museum. The idea clicked for Mr. Ulrich, who often visits a musical instrument museum in Brussels.
Mr. Ulrich's vision became a gorgeous Indian teak sandstone building that blends seamlessly into the Arizona desert. It's also a performance space because there is a wood-paneled, 300-seat concert hall with excellent acoustics. (Marty Ashby, vice president and executive producer of MCG Jazz in Pittsburgh, is consulting with MIM on a forthcoming jazz exhibition and has also arranged for musicians to perform there.)
In the Experience Gallery, visitors of all ages can play a variety of musical instruments, including a large gong. There's a family center with books and games plus space for nursing mothers, a large gift shop, coffee shop and an inviting cafe that overlooks a courtyard. Each level of the two-story building is connected by a gently curving center hall.
The typical museum visit lasts two hours. My stay stretched for 31/2 hours, four if you include lunch, and I still did not see it all. The galleries display ensembles of instruments and, in some cases, elaborate costumes. Practically every culture has its own version of a plucked lute. Through Oct. 1, visitors to the Target Gallery, which hosts changing exhibits, will see a collection of 200 African thumb pianos.
Are you a strummer or a picker? It hardly matters. So artfully arranged are the colorful guitars in a first-floor gallery that you may be inspired to form your own band.
If you have studied piano, you may sit down and play a Steinway concert grand in the lobby. A woman whose impromptu performance of a classical piece indicated a lot of training drew an appreciative crowd of 40 people.
The only museum somewhat similar to MIM, Mr. DeWalt said, is in Hamamatsu, Japan, and focuses more on non-Western instruments.
MIM's collection is based partly on its 2008 purchase of more than 1,400 instruments from Claremont University Consortium in Claremont, Calif., which closed its museum in 2006. To acquire more instruments, MIM sent five curators around the world and hired 130 part-time consultants who lived in various countries.
"I would find, or one of our curators would find, somebody who worked in Afghanistan ... to go to villages to purchase instruments and shoot video for us. We would give them a budget and a shopping list," Mr. DeWalt said.
"At one time, we had four consultants working for us in Africa. Three of them all came down with malaria at about the same time," he recalled.
You may associate bagpipes with Scotland, but they were invented in the Middle East in the 1100s, Mr. DeWalt said. "They didn't get to Scotland until the 1500s."
MIM employs two conservators, Irene Peters from Germany and Daniel Cull from England. When the Martin D-28 acoustic that Elvis played developed cracks, Graceland sent it to MIM for repairs.
Some visitors would come every day if they could, Mr. DeWalt said.
A 14-year-old boy who played the piano in the lobby one day told staff members that he read about the museum and asked his parents to take him to see it. The teenager, who lives in New York, told staff he'd visit the museum daily if he could play the Steinway all the time.