Humans have found ways to communicate through creative expression since the dawn of time. In Phoenix, these efforts can be observed in a myriad of places: from the prehistoric rock art that dots the city’s hiking trails to the annual Hoop Dance World Championship.
When it comes to music, however, there isn’t a more expansive collection of instruments played every day by people worldwide than the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) in Phoenix. When the Passion Passport team visited, we were blown away by the historically rich and culturally significant collection of instruments and other accoutrements thoughtfully laid out within immersive and interactive exhibits.
From its special exhibitions to geographic and artist galleries, MIM is home to more than 8,000 instruments, which pay homage to auditory traditions that span continents, cultures, and centuries.
Upon arrival, we’re greeted by the museum’s mantra: ‘Music is the language of the soul.’ We were also provided headphones—our passport for this self-guided journey. These devices sensed when we approached an exhibit and began to play music of that specific instrument, followed by narration that includes historical and cultural insights as well as corresponding videos.
We embarked on the world’s musical history as we would a map. Each guest is welcome to navigate this experience at their own speed, and it’s easy to get lost in the music—the average visit (including ours) lasts three hours—so plan accordingly.
This vast collection has earned the honor of ranking as the top attraction in Phoenix—and one of the top 15 museums in the United States. Whether you want to immerse yourself in the diverse music of the world or contemplate the interconnectedness of our species, here’s how to make the most out of your next visit to MIM the next time you’re in Phoenix.
Inside the Musical Instrument Museum
At any one time, MIM’s galleries have about 6,800 instruments from more than 200 countries around the world on display. Curated by music cataloguers, ethnomusicologists and other experts in the field, the spaces are designed to immerse you in the sounds of global music traditions.
We kicked things off in the Artist Gallery, where tribute is paid to those musicians who have touched the lives of millions and shaped their craft. Regardless of what’s on your playlist, you’ll find someone to fan out about here. With nearly 40 displays showcasing exhibits that span sounds, styles and eras. Listen to music from RUN DMC, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Roberta Flack, Celia Cruz, Maroon 5 and many others, and see some of the instruments they’ve played and ensembles they’ve worn.
We spent endless hours globetrotting the Geographic Galleries. The Europe gallery spotlights variations of bagpipes that can be found across Europe and North Africa, as well as unusual brass instruments, including the nouveau alto.
Compare and contrast the a 500-year-old Japanese sho (Asia Gallery) with a dulali, a nose flute from Fiji (Oceania galleries), as both instruments are made of bamboo. The Africa Gallery’s Ghana display features the museum’s oldest and most complex African xylophones, with 18 wooden keys over gourd resonators.
The Middle East Gallery is home to an ornate kamancheh, one of only seven of these bowed spike lutes in the world. And the Latin American Gallery celebrates ingenuity and creativity of recycled orchestra instruments with an exhibit featuring string, wind and percussion inventions made from such items as oil drums and kitchen utensils.
The Mechanical Music Gallery was a feast for our ears, highlighting the idiosyncratic world of instruments that play themselves. A gigantic De Cap orchestrion (dance organ) whizzes, whirrs and purrs, emitting carnival-esque tunes and a symphony of lights, while mechanical marionettes and feathered friends tick along like clockwork.
Unlike many museums, MIM encouraged us to roll up our sleeves and channel our inspiration into interaction. In the Experience Gallery, we had the opportunity to try our hand at playing some of the more unique instruments the museum has to offer, including an Indonesian gamelan and the touchless theremin. The result was beautiful chaos, with a healthy dose of childlike play and wonder at the magic of music making.
Not Your Average Guitar Museum
Not only does MIM offer a one-of-a-kind experience to visitors, it also provides a singular space for research into conserving the instruments in its collection and beyond.
At the Conservation Lab, we intently watched conservators meticulously restoring, testing and documenting instruments of all sizes and materials. Like watching paleontologists slowly chipping away sediment from fossilized bone, it was an entrancing experience to behold and shines a new light on the staggering amount of work it takes to keep the museum’s collection pristine.
Although the wonders housed inside the MIM ensure hours of entertainment, the actual structure is just as amazing. In any museum, the architecture of the space can tell just as much of a story as the objects it contains. It’s clear that architect Rich Varda understood this when designing MIM.
Outside, sandstone walls reflect the museum’s mountainous desert surroundings while the world map in the entrance is inlaid with stones sourced from the regions represented in the museum’s collection. Raised stones on the exterior are a nod to the neumes used in early musical notation, and the shape of the rotunda itself is meant to suggest the contours of a grand piano.
A long sweeping corridor forms the spine of the museum, and guides us from gallery to gallery, with visual leitmotifs adding a sense of rhythm to the museum-going experience. With light and sounds bouncing off the Venetian plaster, it’s impossible not to be completely drawn into this euphonious world.
Tours and Special Events
Besides the permanent collections and galleries, MIM hosts monthly Signature Events that celebrate a specific culture or genre that have come to be defined as MIM’s, well, signature.
Pro tip: check the events calendar and, if possible, plan to catch one of the museum’s 200 concerts that take place throughout the year. This acoustically superb, 300-seat theater hosts reed quintets, jazz ensembles as well as emerging and renowned artists from around the world.
Admission to the museum is $20 per adult, but for an additional $7, you can add on a VIP small group tour. As lovers of music and museum curation alike, the Passion Passport team ranks MIM as a must-do. The bonus, for us, was the lovely members of MIM’s team who were an absolute font of knowledge.
On our next visit, we’ll be willing to shell out a bit more and elevate our experience with the museum’s “Balloons and Tunes” package, which combines a hot-air balloon ride with the museum’s usual offerings.