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Musical Instrument Museum of Phoenix

By Renée Tillotson


Only 12 years old, the same as Still & Moving Center, the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) shines as a world class museum of phenomenal quality. This one institution by itself would well justify a trip to Phoenix, Arizona. 

I don’t know about you, but a lot of museums have an energy-draining effect on me with their stodgy, dark rooms with many of the pieces behind glass. They just feel old. Not MIM! This wonderful museum radiates light, spaciousness and youthful energy. All of the thousands of instruments that I viewed were out in the open. Some of them were even available to be touched and played!

We proceeded first to the Rediscover Treasures special exhibition gallery that houses some of the most legendary instruments of the museum’s collection. Unlike most of the museum, you can see remarkable and famous instruments from all sorts of times and places. Here you can see Prince’s huge purple grand piano that the sign says he used to dance upon during his concerts! An original Amati violin from the 1500’s and the first ukulele ever made by Portuguese luthiers in Hawai’i in the 1880s both stand right before your eyes within touching distance.

You can watch talented young musicians on videos talking about and playing ancient instruments that are still in playable condition, thanks to the reconstruction and care they are given at the Museum. They even have Jake Shimabukura describing and playing a gorgeous Kanaka ukulele that the company custom-designed for him with mother-of-pearl inlays.

MIM’s approach to music is truly global. The entire collection is grouped by locality, so that you can progress from the instruments of the various areas of Africa to the Middle East, to Asia, to Oceania, and onward through ALL of the world’s locations. Incorporated into the exhibits are video screens on which you see and hear the instruments being played in their native context. 

If that sounds like a cacophony of music all playing in the same place, let me reassure you that the museum provides you with a high tech smart headset that automatically tunes into whichever video monitor that you approach. You can simultaneously look at the physical instruments and experience similar instruments being played on the video at the same time. Then you move onto the next exhibit and the headset’s information changes accordingly, no matter where you may wander. Fascinating, free-moving and effective. 

They even exhibit authentic costumes that the musicians and dancers would wear while you hear the various instruments being played with dancers moving to the music. 

Every exhibit section – say the exhibit of the musical instruments of Benin – gives a written description of the music of that culture and a map of where that country is located. I don’t know about you, but I can’t really picture in my head where in the world Benin is. So this museum really helped me improve my geographical orientation. 

The exhibits also give the name, date of construction, and materials used for each instrument. Would you ever guess that camel bone would be used in the construction of an antique Persian stringed instrument from Iran? Not I!

The museum’s Conservation Lab is a busy workshop that handles every single incoming instrument and maintains every instrument to preserve and share with future generations in as close to a playable condition as possible. This maintenance includes Experience Gallery instruments, which get regular use from the many visitors young and old who can’t wait to put their hands on these fabulous music-making devices.

In addition to housing this marvelous collection, MIM also conducts an active education and performance schedule. I can imagine an entire academy of musicologists eventually centered out of this museum. As it is, groups of many ages regularly come through for educational events, and the museum hosts wonderful performances by exciting musicians.

“Phoenix was chosen as MIM’s location because of the city’s…vibrant and culturally diverse population” as well as its proximity to national and international attractions in nature, such as the Grand Canyon, says its website.

The entire exhibit is so vast and deep, so multicultural, so well-curated and maintained, and so exquisitely presented, I couldn’t help wondering who on earth had founded and funded such a wonderful place. I just figured it was someone who really loved humanity. As it turns out, Bob Ulrich, the founder and original CEO of Target stores, also founded the Musical Instrument Museum. 

Three cheers to Bob Ulrich for his founding vision and for his continuing presence as Board Chairperson! And three cheers to all of the directors, staff and volunteers who make this museum into the living wonder that it is for all to experience! My hat is off to all of them.

I highly recommend that any of you who have an inkling of interest in music make a pilgrimage someday to Phoenix’s Musical Instrument Museum.


Some photos Courtesy of the Musical Instrument Museum, Phoenix, Arizona, USA


4725 E. Mayo Blvd.
Phoenix, AZ 85050 



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