Day 10 and 11. Usery Mountain. We had read numerous positive reviews about the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) in Phoenix. Neither Peter, nor Davis, nor I are musicians and couldn’t grasp the idea of an entire museum dedicated to musical instruments but we gave it a go. OK, in one word, “Wow”. It was so amazing we went back a second day and still didn’t get through the museum.
I think the best way to describe this experience is to imagine a museum that in video, audio, and physical exhibits gives you a view from 30,000 feet of world cultures and the vast human spiritual connection to making music.
The museum’s ongoing exhibits on the second floor are roughly organized by geography, for example: Europe, South Pacific, Australia, Africa, South America, or Mongolia. Within each geographic area, there are smaller exhibits that dial down to detail, for example: within Europe, an exhibit on Portugal with defining musical instruments, distinctive musical traditions, or dances. The exhibit on Portugal was especially meaningful for me because it featured the traditional instrument, called guitarra portuguesa. My mother has a guitarra (though not as embellished as this beautiful one) that belonged to her mother. It was one of the very few personal items my grandmother brought to the United States when she immigrated here from Sao Miguel, Azores in the early decades of the 20th century.
I saw musical instruments and learned about musical traditions from around the world. As one of the tour guides mentioned, the archive of rare instruments and musical traditions is so unusual it becomes historically significant. In some of the exhibits, there are short videos showcasing a musical performance or tradition.
The most unusual video was from the islands in the South Pacific. Here, a group of six women stood wast-deep in the ocean and with great precision, slapped, scooped, and splashed the water in a rhythmic pattern of mesmerizing intensity. From Mongolia, a very unusual stringed instrument features an elaborate finger board decorated with a horse head, signifying the importance of horses to these nomadic people.
In viewing one of the exhibits from Chile, I was reminded of how interconnected we humans are to one another. Here was a display featuring the banda de pasacalle, a procession distinctive to the island of Chiloe, that mixes a peculiar flute (diuca) with the accordion brought by the Germans in the late 19th century. My nephew lives on Chiloe and my sister, brother-in-law, and their other son have visited the island, as recently as last summer.
The exhibit about the United States included an overview of the significant trends in music here – from Big Band, to blues, to jazz, to country music. The videos were informative and inspiring and some of the displays featured the all customized, remarkable and elaborate stage clothing worn by the artists of the day.
From Elvis Presley, to Johnny Cash, these items provided a third dimension which provided an idea of the size of these larger-than-life people. One of my favorites was the head-to-toe embroidered ensemble worn by country music legend Marty Robbins. The beautiful, fitted jacket was coordinated with bell-bottom trousers and embroidered boots to match. Check out the two pictures here.
I was really thrilled to see a display with a 1886 Steinway & Sons “parlor grand” piano, the same vintage as the piano that I met at the Art Hall at Koreshan State Historic Site in Florida this past winter. The MIM piano had 85 keys, like the Koreshan piano. It had been in the parlor of a private home in St. Louis during the time that the Koreshan piano had been moved from Chicago to the wilds of southwest Florida. Two pianos with a common pedigree but very different lives. Attached to the MIM display was a price list indicating that the piano originally sold for about $1,600.
On day two, we moved down to the first floor. The first floor of the museum held the Special Exhibit and the most amazing gallery of performers’ videos called the Artist Gallery. The special exhibit, called Dragons and Vines, Inlaid Guitar Masterpieces, was devoted to showcasing the inlay artistry that has been applied to the fine guitars used by numerous artists. This jaw-dropping display of artistry still reverberates with me as I just look at the images and try to decide which ones to include for your perusal. The Peacock guitar, which is normally on display at the Martin Guitar Museum in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, won the toss. “Peacock” is guitar #750,000 produced by C. F. Martin & Co. The inlay work was done by Larry Robinson and features thousands of hand-cut pieces of iridescent shells, and extensive use of gold and set diamonds.
Some inlays on guitars commemorate the talented artists who used historic guitars. Joan Baez played on a 1929 Martin guitar for many years and in 1998, Martin created a limited edition guitar commemorating her guitar, adding the inlay of her signature. Very cool to see. The creativity of the inlay artists was revealed in the story behind the Dragon 2002 guitar, the creation of inlay artist Jeff Easley. It was inspired by a scene from Jurassic Park where the close-up of the beast’s head covers 90% of the guitar. The artist employed shells and stones and exotic materials in creating the inlay which appears textured and multidimensional on this limited edition work of art.
The Artist Gallery celebrates many of music’s most influential artists. In every time and place, there are musicians whose art deeply touches the lives of many. The Artist Gallery highlights these personalities with ever-changing exhibits that span sound, style, and era. See and hear instruments played by icons such as Elvis Presley®, Johnny Cash, Pablo Casals, John Lennon, “King” Sunny Adé, Taylor Swift, Clara Rockmore, the Kronos Quartet, Ray Orbison and many others from around the world. I think I melted into the presentations here for what must have been an hour before coming back into present time.
We all loved this museum and know that at some future time when we re-gather in Phoenix that we will be back to complete what we didn’t see, explore the newest exhibits, and re-visit some our favorites from this time. Music indeed is the language of the soul.
Liz and Peter continue their pilgrimage to here with a two-day interlude at MIM, living their lives every day in their Airstream.