Museum Review: The Musical Instrument Museum (Phoenix, Arizona)

MIM.jpgWhen people ask me what to see when they visit Arizona (and the Valley of the Sun in particular) with their families, I have previously been at somewhat of a loss. I mean, the standard family and cultural activities here -- the Zoo, the Children's Museum, etc. -- are good, but if you're coming from another metropolitan area, you probably have something of similar quality in your own town. While baseball spring training is great, it's just one month a year. And a lot of the activities/locations that are unique to Arizona -- I'm thinking of our excellent Native American museum The Heard Museum and the Desert Botanical Garden -- are not necessarily the most friendly for families. Not unfriendly, mind you, just not much of a wow for young kids. I usually just end up telling folks to loll around the grounds and pools of a resort if they're staying there, enjoy the weather (except during this time of year), and make sure to get up to Sedona or the Grand Canyon to enjoy different non-desert sights.

But I've got something to tell 'em now.

I've been following the progress of the Musical Instrument Museum in north Phoenix for awhile now, long before it opened its doors this spring. I first had a chance to get a small peek earlier this summer when Rani Arbo & daisy mayhem came through Phoenix to play a concert at the MIM's sweet 299-seat theatre. But there wasn't time (not with two kids at least) to add a museum visit on top of the show (which, I might add, was really good. Go, folks, and see 'em in concert!)

So a couple weeks ago the whole family (plus the official mom of Zooglobble, in town for a visit) went up to north Phoenix to see the museum itself. The verdict? Well, cut to the chase -- the museum's kinda awesome.

The building itself is about 190,000 square feet spread over 2 stories. The heart of the museum, taking up most of the second story, is five separate rooms covering every country in the world. That's right, there's an exhibit featuring instruments for each and every one of the world's countries. The commitment to showing all of the world's instruments is inherent in the museum's design, which directs most visitors to start their visit in the African and Middle East portion of the exhibits, rather than the more familiar (for most visitors) North American or European rooms.
KlezmerExhibit.jpgIt's sort of hard to convey in words how immersive the exhibits quickly become. (I know -- I remember hearing Museum employees doing so before its opening, and the words couldn't do it justice.) The exhibits have instruments hanging on the wall or sitting on the floor, obviously, but beyond that they all have flat screen TVs that turn on when you walk up to them wearing headsets you receive as part of your museum admission. So you walk up to an exhibit (on, say, klezmer, pictured here), and you can hear and see people talk or play the relevant instrument(s). And so it goes on for exhibit after exhibit. The instruments are generally in incredible shape and for the most part they're there in the open, not in cases, close enough to inspect (visually, of course).

One of the beneficial things about the exhibit's structures is that because of the Museum's ethnomusicographical background you see the instruments in a wide range of daily use -- everyday use, special rituals, how they're made. (The larger and more comprehensive North American / European galleries are organized more thematically -- e.g., Native American music, electronic music, bluegrass.) The large space means getting to see instruments that you probably would never get to see -- they don't need to cram a bunch of instruments in a tiny space (or omit the bigger instruments). You will probably not get too many chances to see a gamalan orchestra, as you can here.

The amazing part is that after wandering through these five galleries -- which could take you a couple hours, and you'd probably still feel rushed -- there's still a first floor to explore. And you don't want to miss that. There's a small gallery featuring recorded/reproduced music (e.g., player pianos and record players) and another small gallery that currently features famous musicians' instruments with the same TV/audio features as in the galleries above -- think Hard Rock Cafe without the overpriced food and t-shirts.

And then there's the "Experience Room," which by itself makes this museum accessible to little kids (not to mention little kids trapped inside big kids). It's a huge room filled with all sorts of instruments, sitting out for you to play with. This is not a couple baskets of instruments you might pull out at a Music Together class. Rather, it's a whole bunch of drums from all over the world. Xylophones and glockenspiels. Thumb pianos (mbiras), guitars, a big freakin' gong taller than me. Plus, and this might have been worth the admission fee by itself, a theremin. And more. I can only imagine how cacophonous the room must get when it's particularly crowded (and I'm worried about whether they'll be able to keep the room as well-stocked as it gets more use), but for now it's amazing.

Especially for Little Boy Blue. Which is where I get into how the Museum works as a family experience. Little Boy Blue is barely five years old, and as you'd expect, wandering around the exhibits on the upper floor was not an optimal experience for him. My wife and I fairly quickly realized that only one of us would be able to fully enjoy the Museum at any one time. But once we discovered the Experience Room on the bottom floor, Little Boy Blue was hooked. He probably spent a good hour in that room. (He does, after all, love the drums.)

Now, five-year-olds aren't the target kid audience for the Museum. Their tours are designed for kids starting in fourth grade. And Miss Mary Mack, recently nine years old, loved the place and wanted to go back the next week. So it's definitely family-friendly, but if you're visiting with younger (or less mature kids), you'll need to adjust your expectations accordingly. You can have a good time, but it's going to require some flexibility. It's also not cheap -- at $15 for adults and $10 for kids aged 6 and up it's probably going to be a once-yearly (or less) experience for us. I also think the Museum would do a decent business offering tickets at 50% off if used within a couple weeks of the first visit for families who visited and just didn't get to everything because their kids' useful attention span was only good for about half the museum.

But these are comparatively minor quibbles. In short, the Musical Instrument Museum is a first-class museum and a first-class museum experience. If you live in Arizona or visit here and have any interest whatsoever in music, you owe it to yourself to visit. And bring the kids along -- most of 'em will love it as much as you will. Definitely recommended.

Addendum: In case the pictures are insufficient, here's a news report on the museum...