When traveling the American desert southwest, one should expect the unexpected. Visit in the springtime and you might witness the elusive flowering of the torch cactus, which happens on just one day each year. No matter when you visit, though, you can see 1,000-year-old Native American pueblos (complete with ball courts), marvelous relics of long-lost civilizations that thrived long before the desert itself was formed. And whenever you go, you’ll certainly want to experience the Musical Instrument Museum, in Phoenix.
Many museums contain musical instruments; Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art have excellent collections on display, though they’re subsidiary to wider assemblages of art and artifacts. There are also museums devoted to musical instruments, such as the National Music Museum, in Vermillion, South Dakota, the Museum of Musical Instruments in Hamamatsu, Japan, and the Musical Instruments Museum in Brussels, Belgium (which led directly to the founding of the Phoenix museum). Most display at least some non-Western instruments, especially the Ethnologisches Museum, Stattliche Museen zu Berlin.
The Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) is surrounded by sand, cacti, haggard camelback mountains, and towering palm trees. While there are plenty of densely populated parts of Phoenix – the city is 1.5 million, metro area 4.3 million souls – there are also swaths of undeveloped desert within city limits; the 20-acre campus of the MIM sits on the edge of one of these patches, just off Route 101 at the Tatum Avenue exit.
Brainchild of Robert J. Ulrich, former CEO and Chairman of Target Corporation (think “big red logo”), and his friend, Marc Felix, the MIM is intended to showcase the music and musical instruments of every country in the world. Ulrich collects African art and happens to be a museum aficionado, and the two were visiting the instrument museum in Brussels when they were struck with the idea to push the concept to the max. That did not mean simply collect and hang a bunch of drums and bagpipes. No. They wanted the visitor to understand something of the cultural context and enjoy an intimate interaction with the instruments using technology to enhance the experience.
The two created a non-profit organization and gathered a team of musical-instrument experts under the direction of Dr. Billie R. DeWalt, then dispatched it to assemble the collection. A team of architects led by Richard Varda (RSP Architects), designed a building to house the collection. In 2010, the 200,000-square-foot MIM arose after more than five years’ work and planning.
When you pull off the freeway into open desert, you might spot a dust devil spring up, wobble portentously, then drift until it hits scrub brush and promptly collapses. Take a left, and the MIM looms as a massive structure growing from a parking lot adorned by native plantings. On the outside, the facility is a huge two-story structure faced with Indian sandstone designed to represent an Arizona canyon. The entrance is set back on an inviting plaza planted with more lush foliage surrounding babbling brooks, allegorical sculptures, and outdoor seating for the museum’s Café Allegro. Enter through the large black-glass doors and you’re bathed in natural light as the canyon metaphor continues with a meandering central corridor dubbed “El Rio.”
Basically, MIM’s public areas and specialty galleries reside on the first floor, while the main collection lives on the second, with its “cliffs” overlooking El Rio. The lower level hosts a gift shop, restaurant, “family room,” a Mechanical Instrument Gallery, the Target Gallery for special exhibitions, and a special Artist Gallery. Plus, there’s another gallery where anyone can play real instruments.
The Artist Gallery is where you’ll find the Martin D-28 played by Elvis just before his death in 1977, the Steinway on which John Lennon wrote “Imagine,” Carlos Santana’s “Buddha” Yamaha solidbody, the ES-345 Eric Clapton played in the ’60s, George Benson’s Gibson Johnny Smith, and Dick Dale’s collection of Fender guitars. There are celebrity instruments sprinkled throughout other galleries – including a locally made doubleneck owned by Duane Eddy (on loan from Deke Dickerson) and Buck Owens’ Harmony-made red, white, and blue acoustic – and these often change as MIM works closely with other organizations and foundations.
The first floor also houses MIM’s 300-seat theater. In addition to complete recording studio gear, the theater is “acoustically tunable” to accommodate whatever kind of music is playing that night, which can be anything from Asleep at the Wheel to the Zydeco Experience – the schedule very heavy on guitar players. The room’s sound is sculpted with adjustable baffles and it’s booked most nights.
While the MIM is not dedicated to the guitar, its first exhibit is “Guitars: Many Forms, Many Countries” and pairs an Ampeg Dan Armstrong with a Maccaferri plastic guitar, a Gianinni Craviola with a Charturangui from India, electrics with acoustics, an Alan Gittler “fishbone,” etc. Basically, it challenges the visitor to open their mind to consider wider definitions, and it’s just a small taste of what’s to come.
In the minds of most people, the concept of “museum” involves history; it’s where you go to see old paintings, a reconstructed 16th-century Buddhist temple, or a stuffed carrier pigeon. In a way, that’s inherent in the nature of museums. Even if you put the most modern of modern art on the wall for the public to see – a painting finished just that morning – tomorrow, it will be fixed in time while the world marches forward. History.
MIM contains many old instruments, so it is intrinsically historical. However, it also houses many completely new instruments, so “history” is not a big enough idea to encompass the MIM collection. Again, one of MIM’s missions is to show the cultural context of the music. That might mean showing a Mariachi costume on a mannequin next to the bajo sexto he might play. But, it also might mean showing an acoustic guitar from the ’30s next to a monitor with an old piece of video of the Carter family. Walk up to the Klezmer display and be treated to antique video of a raucus orchestra.
Most museums today use headset stations where a visitor listens to a curator’s recording on the importance of a specific element, especially during special exhibitions. MIM goes one better; visitors receive a wireless headset with a detection feature, so as one walks toward a display, relevant audio turns on. If there’s video, it syncs with its audio track. As much as possible, curators let you hear the very instruments you’re looking at, or one almost identical to it. This all feels very natural and adds an immersive dimension to viewing the instruments.
While an historical perspective is one way to parse the MIM collection (its oldest instrument is a Chinese drum dating to 5000 to 4000 BC!), its primary organizing principle is geographical, not historical. Think of the second-floor galleries as a massive map of the world and you’re a giant, able to stride around it in a couple hours. Begin in Africa and the Middle East, stroll over to Asia and Oceana, then Europe, the United States and Canada, and finish in your trek in Latin America and the Caribbean. Each of these continental galleries is subdivided into constituent countries and territories, more or less arranged as you’d find them on the map. Thus, you might move from instruments found in the Arabian peninsula to those found in Syria, then Iraq, etc.
Another way you might slice and dice the MIM collection is to look for comparative relationships between instruments within a particular kind of music – say Arabic or Latin American – that you can investigate sometimes by moving just a few feet away! Or perhaps you want to compare bowed instruments from different parts of the world. It’s all there. In the past, the only way you could see and compare musical instruments this way was with an authoritative book compendium. Now, the real thing is right in front of you.
There’s also a strong nod given to instrument making. MIM maintains close relationships with many manufacturers and salts its displays with things like a luthier’s bench contributed by C.F. Martin. And, of course, there’s a purely aesthetic dimension. The people who make musical instruments like to make them pretty and, wherever practical, curators have chosen examples that show off the bling. A pearl-encrusted l’oud with a delicately carved rose? Check. A finely carved Chinese horsehead peghead? Ditto.
That said, the curators are not loath to show the curious but sometimes unlovely “folk” side of instruments. For example, there’s a fascinating handmade guitar from the African bush that looks a lot like Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein! Clearly, the maker had some idea of what the parts needed to be, but wasn’t so clear on how to put them together (and how it would actually be played is something else altogether!).
As an aside, MIM is active in educational and outreach programs, not the least of which is the Paraguay’s Recycled Orchestra, a remarkable group of children who play instruments fashioned from trash – old cans and wire – salvaged from the local garbage dump. Some of the instruments are on display with an accompanying video.
The MIM collection is mind-bogglingly vast. On display are more than 15,000 instruments and related artifacts from more than 200 countries and territories. Plan for your dogs to be sore and your brain to be a little numb when you exit the MIM. Also, plan not to see everything in one single visit!
Obviously, an exhibit of musical instruments will require the ability to conserve/restore them. MIM maintains a state-of-the-art lab where, for example, a stunning and rare James Ashborn Model 6 was recently brought back to life after enduring decades of neglect in the back of a closet. Also obviously, not every instrument MIM owns is on display. Behind the scenes are row after row of instruments in carefully climate-controlled storage. Hundreds of vintage acoustic guitars wait to be included in an exhibit, all delicately supported by linen straps and perched on little pillows individually shaped to fit the instrument, sewn by MIM volunteers.
Back on that fateful day when Mssrs. Ulrich and Felix perused the instrument collection in Brussels, they may (or may not) have realized they were about to bring museum history almost full circle, actually integrating many aspects of its historical tradition.
“Museums,” or at least collections, have been around since antiquity. But the modern concept of a museum dates back to around the 15th century, when the term was used to refer to the private collection (probably of art and fine objects) held by Lorenzo de’ Medici, Florence, Italy. Museums as a public entertainment destination probably date back to the 17th century, when collectors of “oddities” began opening their doors to the public – for a price, of course. These museums were often called “cabinets,” and the oddities could mean anything from exotic stuffed animals to mastodon bones to historical artifacts. One of the first oddity museums in the U-.S. was opened in 1786 by Charles Wilson Peale, in Philadelphia. Around this time, displays began to include portraits of famous people and interesting paintings, especially landscapes of exotic places. One of the most influential U.S. museums in the mid 19th century was P.T. Barnum’s American Museum, in New York City, which pioneered the addition of music concerts and dramatic presentations of Shakespeare “cleaned up” and suitable for the whole family. America’s first Disneyland!
During the second half of 19th century, especially under the influence of popular World’s Fairs and new scientific approaches to organizing knowledge, exhibitions became increasingly specialized. Gone were the cabinets of miscellaneous curious oddities. Objects were separated, classified, and grouped into collections with something in common, displayed as examples of natural history, cultural history, industrial production, art and sculpture, etc.
Museums exploded during the early 20th century as great political changes re-shaped notions about public access to museum collections – the idea that great collections are part of the people’s cultural heritage. Along with the concept came the obligation on the part of the facility to elevate the public, through aesthetics, through education.
Much of this evolutionary development is reflected in MIM. It’s a musical-instrument museum, and as such is focused on a specific subject, like modern museums tend to be. Yet, the inclusion of “contexts” – the environments where the instruments originally existed, the costumes and accessories that accompany them – almost returns the concept to the cabinet, just with a relevant educational purpose. The theater is reminiscent of good ol’ P.T. The first impression is complete awe at the importance of music for humans all over the globe, and how much – often along totally independent evolutionary lines – we have managed to create instruments to make that music. And how much those creations are – never mind that they’re intended to be played – in themselves works of high art.
In the final analysis, MIM is not an “art museum.” It is the ultimate musical instrument museum. Its “geographical” organization is brilliantly neutral and its presentation masterful and state-of-the-art – an art long in development.
Special thanks to Erin Miller, Media Relations Manager for the MIM, and Rich Walter PhD, Curatorial Assistant.
This article originally appeared in VG March 2016 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.