It doesn’t take long to figure out the theme of the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, Ariz.: Music has no borders. We’re all people. We all create music, and therefore we’re all the same.
The message is subtle as a cranked-to-11 100-watt Marshall amplifier. The heavy-handed indoctrination and some other key flaws curdle what could’ve been an excellent museum geared toward informing and entertaining visitors of all ages. It could’ve been a welcome addition the Phoenix area’s rather bland museum choices.
During a recent visit, I took note of what worked at the 190,000-square-foot, $150 million museum – and what was off-key.
Geographic Layout Hits the Wrong Chord
The Musical Instrument Museum organizes its exhibits geographically – a key technique in ramming its point home. The collection of nearly 12,000 instruments (many of which are duplicated) spans more than 200 counties.
Aside from my disdain for being spoon-fed socio-political messages in such a hackneyed fashion, this causes rampant duplication. Many countries use the violin. Consequently, the museum has more violins than it really needs. Ditto for many types of percussion used worldwide.
And some of the instruments and their accompanying information is flat-out laughable; one Caribbean country’s display includes a whistle with the text “Whistle – Plastic – 2010.” Is that really necessary?
Video Monitors a Clever Idea, Badly Executed
One of the most interesting features is the network of nearly 300 flat-screen monitors throughout the museum. Each broadcasts a wireless audio signal to accompany the adjacent exhibit. The $15 admission price includes the use of a headset and receiver. When you come within the range of the museum’s video monitors, you’ll get an audio stream related to the display. If you’re near the display for India, you’ll get corresponding audio.
Unfortunately, the content often doesn’t include the more interesting instruments. The Israel exhibit has audio of violin pieces. But you won’t hear the sound of shofar. That makes little sense: Few people need to visit a museum to be exposed to a violin. As an Australia-phile, I was also disappointed by the didgeridoo audio.
Omissions of Genre and Regions, Bubblegum-Flavored Artists Gallery
Some of the geographically organized exhibits also had sub-exhibits of musical genres. It’s interesting to see what was omitted. Jazz, klezmer, hip-hop and early rock music all get their due. But it’s almost as if modern rock and heavy metal never existed. I’m also flummoxed that I couldn’t find an exhibit for the United Kingdom. I enjoy Irish folk, but couldn’t seem to find it.
I expected the Fender exhibit yo be more inclusive. Fender Musical Instruments Corporation owns a number of iconic brands, yet the display only shows Fender gear. What about Jackson, Guild, Hamer or Gretsch?
It’s clear from the Artists Gallery that the Musical Instrument Museum is also aware that modern music is significant. In some ways, the curators might be too in touch: I cringed at a guitar signed by The Jonas Brothers. I can understand displaying instruments from Paul Simon or John Lennon – predictable and uncontroversial as they are. But the museum should shun the bubblegum.
Experience Gallery Electrifies
Just about every visitor will love the Experience Gallery. There’s something ridiculously fun about whacking a gong. Visitors can also try their hand at the guitar. The theremin, the world’s first electronic musical instrument, is my favorite. It didn’t seem to be functioning quite right next to others I’ve tried – but it still gives visitors an idea of how it works.
Display of Modern Instruments Sweeps the Rests
There are some displays that give a glimpse of the museum’s potential brilliance: One features some electronic instruments such as a Moog synthesizer – this also featured the hands-down best video display. The others featured Russian-made modern instruments, a collection of bagpipes from around the world and the glass harmonica. These exhibits actually made me grin – they showed me something interesting. The audio and TV signals actually reinforced the instruments on display. Perfect!
I’d really suggest a museum do-over. Organize the instruments by percussion, strings, electronic and wind. Spare us the heavy-handed “music unites the world and we’re all the same” message. Let us appreciate the instruments themselves and the sounds they make – and draw our own conclusions about what musical instruments mean to humanity.