Phoenix museum hits high notes

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 15, 2013 - 2:24 PM

The Musical Instrument Museum blends history, geography and wireless headsets to highlight a world of music.

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Headsets sync with the audio offerings at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, making them a must for visitors.

Photo: Musical Instrument Museum ,

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Conner and Jack Perry, ages 3 and 5 respectively, were in the Experience Gallery, lost in zen-like banging on African drums. Their mom, Sara, nodded when asked if they were enjoying their visit.

“It’s cool,” said Sara of Cincinnati, referring to the 200,000-square-foot museum devoted to world music, “but we’ve been here for 30 minutes, and we haven’t left this room yet.”

Such are the delights and challenges of the three-year-old Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) in Phoenix, featuring 15,000 instruments from more than 200 countries and territories, elaborate costumes and masks, and state-of-the-art headsets wooing visitors toward melodic encounters at every turn.

Just try to leave.

MIM opened in 2010, the location chosen for its proximity to popular tourist destinations including the Grand Canyon. While its name is ordinary, MIM is plenty grand, too, thanks largely to Minnesotans.

“The learning, the experience, the pure joy: It really introduces everyone to other cultures,” said founder Robert Ulrich, former CEO and chairman emeritus of Target Corp. “It shows people that while music is different in different cultures, we use it in the same way, for solace and celebration.”

Ulrich drew inspiration for his $250 million dream from another of its kind in Brussels, Belgium. But that one features Western-style instruments only; another, in Japan, is one-tenth MIM’s size. To create the most comprehensive in the world, Ulrich sent 140 consultants, five curators and cultural anthropologist Billie DeWalt, formerly director of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, on a massive global treasure hunt. They reeled in more than 15,000 instruments and objects, some from native artisans, others from collectors, that make up the continuously updated and rotating collection.

Rich Varda and RSP Architects of Minneapolis designed the two-story building, which features a sleek Indian sandstone facade, blending into the Southwestern landscape. Artistic director Lowell Pickett, owner of Minneapolis’ renowned Dakota Jazz Club, books an eclectic menu of performances year-round for the museum’s intimate 299-seat theater.

But the greatest joy of MIM is wandering through it. The first floor features a Steinway grand piano that anyone can play, special traveling exhibits, an Artist Gallery, experience room and delightful mechanical music gallery, where a calliope bursts to life with “Edelweiss” at 2 p.m. daily.

“The sound would carry for five miles,” said volunteer Jim Tope, sporting a snazzy bolo tie, reflecting on the history of the self-playing, steam-powered organ.

In the Experience Gallery, I looked around to make sure nobody was looking, then gonged, strummed and drummed, feeling like a kid again.

Upstairs offers 360 separate exhibits, divided into five major global regions: Africa and the Middle East, Asia and Oceania, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the United States and Canada.

Unlike many museums, where headsets are optional, you don’t want to opt out here. These cool wireless headsets are synced to the audio offerings, so you don’t have to push any buttons. Move toward display cases and you are immersed in music — velvety-voiced Ella Fitzgerald, the 2008 percussionists pounding on Olympic drums in Beijing, Clara Rockmore playing the weirdly scientific theremin.

Another surprise is how accessible instruments are. Most are not behind glass, but inches away, allowing close study of their often intricate designs. I spent a chunk of time “in” Latin America, comparing and contrasting various drum traditions, including the Brazilian (double-headed cylindrical drum) and Mexican snare drum, called a tarola.

The Mexican exhibit also features lively mariachi music and boldly colored charro outfits, plus a video of some very brave bull riders. In the Asia space, I read about the traditional end-blown shakuhachi flute, which is said to produce musical tones representing “the full spectrum of natural sounds.” I moved later to Europe, where a long, skinny Scandinavian lur looked like something Dr. Seuss would create.

I marveled at a massive collection of blues harmonicas, a display of colorful South African lutes made from tin oil cans, and delicately inlaid mother-of-pearl stringed instruments, called ouds, from Egypt and Israel.

Music, we understand so well in this setting, is integral to everyone’s cultural life.

A MIM highlight is the Artist Gallery, featuring video footage, photographs and some heart-stopping instruments linked to world-renowned musicians. Included is the piano John Lennon used to compose “Imagine,” and Elvis’ guitar, with a video clip of the superstar crooner in his younger, thinner, black-leather-and-fringe days.

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