On Museums, and Why You Should Visit MIM.

As someone who can take advantage of a glorious ‘work from home arrangement’ when the mood strikes me, I’ve been lucky enough to spend the past week with my family in the American Southwest. Today, I got the distinct privilege of spending the day with my older brother and his girlfriend at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix (aka MIM). I’ll be honest – my expectations were not great. I’d patronized a number of musical instrument museums across Europe, and the harpsichord really only impresses the first fifty times. Yet, MIM surpassed all of my expectations. With an incredibly detailed collection full of instruments from every continent (barring Antarctica, of course) MIM was a full-immersion experience in global musical history.

The Making of a Steinway at MIM.
Harpsichord? Eh. Give me the making of a Steinway any day.

To be fair, it wasn’t perfect. As my brother said, it scores about an 82/100 (its ability to guarantee us copious amounts of future points on Jeopardy aside). That B- was well earned. With meticulously curated individual exhibits, the museum surpassed my expectations when it comes to sheer ethnomusicological knowledge. That being said, it lacked somewhat when it comes to user experience. These issues, however, are all easy fixes, hence the B grade.

First things first: navigation. It’s questionable. How can that be, you ask? Well, unfortunately for the geographically impaired among us, it isn’t always clear just how best to proceed through a lengthy set of museum exhibits while at MIM. Case in point: while the museum may have been designed to have visitors begin at the interactive museum and proceed upwards, we ended up at the temporary showcase first, geographically separated exhibits second, and experiential exhibits last. While we enjoyed our meandering route, this is clearly not what the curators intended. All three of us agreed that it would have been great to have a clearer path through each continent, at the very least. (Don’t ask me how or why hip-hop is right across from the fife-and-drum section of America, because I really couldn’t tell you). In fact, making everything go in chronological order would add coherency to one of the most thorough collections I’ve ever seen at pretty much any museum in the world.

Secondly, the amount of background information provided was startlingly lacking. For example, standard European/American violins were described as ‘zithers’ on every placard. Sure, I — as someone with a professional degree in music — know what a zither is. The standard visitor, however, likely doesn’t.  It would have been nice to have an infographic or two regarding various historically relevant and ‘foundational’ instruments.

A German Harp-Guitar at MIM
What exactly is a German harp-guitar, and why does it exist? We may never know.

I think that’s especially important to note due to the fact that adding basic knowledge would in no way retract from the sheer size and scope of the permanent collection. Even as someone coming in with substantial knowledge of ethnomusicology, I was consistently shocked and awed by many of the materials provided. For example: bagpipes exist in literally every country and culture in the world from what MIM tells us – cool! I wish they’d explained a little bit more how the bagpipe came to be, and how it works, considering. Alas, I got to stare at a cultural cornucopia of bagpipes, but still can’t begin to tell you anything about them other than ‘cow parts, pipes, bag, blow.’ I know MIM can do better.

It’s also worth mentioning that, for the most part, I basically took all of my cues regarding this visit from my brother. He’s not a professional musician, although he has a strong musical background and I feel like that’s a fair place to start. While he is by no means a expert, he is well informed, which I think puts him in the sweet spot in terms of who MIM is looking to attract.

Looking through that lens, my main critique is this: more interaction! We all agreed that the museum would benefit greatly from having individual interactive rooms for each continent. Restricting interaction to one room for the whole museum makes visitors feel overwhelmed and overwrought. Smaller interactive exhibits based on geography would really enhance the exhibition (and probably make it easier for people to grasp how the rarer instruments function).

To be fair to MIM, their audio-video components were the coolest, most engaging, most impressive that I’ve ever seen (and I say this is a museum-obsessed kid turned adult who has spent literally hundreds of hours in museums all over the world). Headphones and an audio pack are included in your $20 admission. Slip on the headphones: as you walk from country to country and exhibit to exhibit the music and video automatically plays. Automatically! No pressing weird number/letter combinations, no fumbling to find the corresponding placard. It’s a museum of music, and you go barely a moment unaccompanied by the soundtracks of the world. I was hugely impressed, and although the system isn’t perfect, MIM is probably worth a visit on the strength of the multimedia presentations alone.

Traditional Korean Court Orchestra
See the TV screen hiding in the left-hand corner? When you walk past it, it automatically starts playing video of folks playing these traditional Korean court instruments, with audio streaming straight into your headphones! Cool, huh?

Of course, they could certainly be improved. Remember all that background information I was searching for? It seems like it would be child’s play to add a few explanatory videos here and there. In the European exhibit, for example, they have a life-size recreation of a traditional Italian violin maker’s studio. Having a video showing a real-life violin maker demonstrating his craft would have added a grounding component to an impressive and whimsical portion of the collection.

It’s also worth talking about the breathtaking temporary exhibit, Dragons and Vines. It’s an extra $7 dollars, but let me tell you: so worth it. Open through September of 2017, Dragons and Vines shows the history and development of guitar and banjo inlay in modern America. A glorious collection highlighting the collaboration between Pearl Works inlay company and PSR and Martin guitars, the exhibit is a magical display of truly gorgeous inlay. Shining mother of pearl, synthetic shell, and real-life glimpses of inlay signatures from Gene Autry to Eric Clapton. It doesn’t matter if you’re not a guitar aficionado. These aren’t just instruments. These are art, and they deserve to be admired in all their glory.

Last, but not least: kids. As an erstwhile nanny, I pay a lot of attention to how kid-friendly museums are. Short answer regarding MIM is: not very. While the instrument displays and constant audio-visual components are great, they don’t really serve to engage children. I think it would be particularly difficult for any visitor under twelve, surrounded by shiny instruments and unable to touch any of them as they walk through the exhibits. Unless your little one has impeccable self-control (or you’re willing to shout “don’t touch that!” every 5 seconds), a MIM visit would undoubtedly be an exercise in frustration.

Extra long brass trumpet.
See this super cool, super long trumpet? Your kid can’t touch it. Good luck with that.

So what’s the takeaway? MIM is amazing. If you’re a professional musician, avocational player, or just like shiny things, this is the museum for you. If you’re an art buff who appreciates a well-curated collection that doesn’t get mired down in the Western world, MIM is also worth a stop. If you’re the caretaker of small people and in the Phoenix area, let me recommend the Heard instead. MIM won’t be fully appreciated until your little ones are a bit older.

TL;DR? Come visit MIM. Just include some serious planning beforehand.



Day 4: January 4, 2017


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