Music News

The First Global Musical Instrument Museum Opens in Phoenix

The Musical Instrument Museum — which debuts to the public this weekend and will showcase instruments from every single country in the world — is, honest to goodness, to die for.

Seriously. Somebody perished in the act of instrument procuring.

As you can imagine, stocking and displaying multiple instruments from all of Earth's 195 countries is an arduous task. Start thinking about all the wars, political strife, class struggles, and environmental challenges taking place on this planet, and scoring all that gear seems like mission impossible.

However, the north Phoenix museum somehow pulled it off. There are other instrument museums across the globe, such as Brussels' Musée des Instruments de Musique. However, other than the Hamamatsu Museum of Musical Instruments in Japan, which collects and displays worldwide instruments on a smaller scale, the 12,000 instruments at Phoenix's MIM is a collection that truly stands alone.

The idea for the museum was born 41/2 years ago in the mind of Bob Ulrich. At the time, Ulrich, who recently announced his retirement as president and CEO of Target, had been going to museums all over the world in search of a high-quality art piece. (Ulrich had his eye on an Impressionist painting, which he planned to donate to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts after purchasing.)

Hanging out one day in Belgium, Ulrich ran the idea by a friend. Not a bad proposition, said his friend, but for that amount of money, why don't you buy a museum?

The idea stuck. Shortly thereafter, Ulrich bankrolled a $250 million, titanic-level museum that would sonically represent every country in the world — and not just Western instruments, as most others do.

On March 1, 2007, Ulrich and his crew decided that Phoenix would be the site. Eleven months later, they broke ground.

"Phoenix is a really fast-growing city," says Bill DeWalt, MIM president and director. "Plus, it's a young place that doesn't have the wealth and depth of cultural institutions, where other cities, such as New York City, have more institutions than the city can support."

Opening a museum in the Valley is definitely a risk right now, especially since other local cultural institutions continue to struggle. Months ago, the Phoenix Art Museum, the Southwest's largest museum, downsized its operating hours from six to five days per week. Surprise's Heard Museum West closed its doors last year, while the West Valley Art Museum — which hopes to reopen but hasn't at press time — closed on August 19, 2009. Both the Heard West and the WVAM were hurt by their remote locations.

Phoenix's Musical Instrument Museum isn't centrally located, either — the building is about a 25-minute drive from downtown Phoenix. However, financial solvency may be achieved because, much like NYC's Museum of Modern Art and The Art Institute of Chicago, the MIM is definitely not a one-visit museum.

Downstairs is a celebrity gallery where patrons can check out the "Imagine" piano (at which John Lennon composed the iconic song) as well as instruments played by George Benson and Paul Simon. There's also an impressive and intimate 299-seat theater that will showcase a full schedule of concerts. (Acts scheduled to appear in the summer include King Sunny Ade, Sierra Leone's Refugee All-Stars, and finger-style guitar virtuoso Tommy Emmanuel.)

Upstairs, 10 regions of the world are represented in five main galleries. This is where you'll find some crazy stuff scavenged from the most remote corners of the world, including ntan drums played by the Asante people of Ghana and a saung guak Burmese harp that was nearly ruined during Cyclone Nargis and that Senator John McCain's office helped get through U.S. Customs. There's also a circa-1970 Harmony Sovereign Jumbo guitar, an American-born instrument that's more than eight feet tall and weighs 80 pounds. The museum-going experience will also include video and audio snippets of the displayed items, which can be enjoyed in peace while wearing museum-supplied wireless headphones.

The museum's five main curators actually went into the field to collect instruments for the museum. In other cases, consultants from around the world were hired to procure pieces for the MIM.

As you might imagine, filling the museum led to plenty of adventures. For instance, a Malawian consultant was forced to ride a borrowed bicycle for four hours just to reach his instrument-collecting destination. In a case that turned deadly, the assistant to the Botswana consultant was killed on the road during that country's Independence Day. And numerous folks hired by MIM contracted malaria.

Dr. Amanda Villepastour, curator of the Africa and the Middle East gallery, encountered her own travel hardships while visiting a handful of African countries (she twice lost luggage at the airport and embarked on a 350-mile road trip in a four-wheel-drive vehicle that wouldn't shift into fifth gear). But Villepastour — who moved to the scholarly side of music as an ethnomusicologist after a career as a keyboardist for the Eurogliders, The Thompson Twins, and Gang of Four — found much more in the continent.

"Africa is not all about drums. The continent has every instrument imaginable, and many African cultures don't drum. For example, South Africa has only three indigenous drumming cultures," says Villepastour, who adds, "You drive for 30 minutes [in Africa] and it's a totally different world. It's not like driving from Phoenix to Tempe. The clothes, houses, instruments, and the people [in Africa] are all different."

Villepastour also explains that some instruments in the Africa and the Middle East galleries, such as those acquired from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, have never been seen publicly. Other items in the collection include sound-producing devices made from recycled items, such as tin cans, FedEx overnight packaging, and spider-egg casings.

Another cool thing is that, as time passes, the instruments, rather than just sitting there on the walls for years, will be updated and rotated. That will require more in-the-field collecting from Villepastour, her curatorial colleagues, and consultants.

Hopefully the yet-to-be-blood-hounded items won't be to die for.

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Steve Jansen
Contact: Steve Jansen