The Museum of Musical Instruments (MIM) in Phoenix  Arizona is another  proof that even in the desert, if they set their mind to it, Americans can do everything. The handsome new building,  surrounded by Phoenix mountains, has become a new cultural center, the venue of different musical and educational activities.

The layout of the museum  is accessible, simple, and visitor friendly.On the ground floor, by the gargantuan double-bass centerpiece, the visitors are invited to view a short orientation video. In that film the narrator conveys the universal motto of the museum: music is the amplifier of human emotions.

The museum has devoted lots of attention and funds and was successful in assembling an impressive  collection of musical instruments, and the exhibition displays instruments from all over the world.  The large halls upstairs are classified by the different continents and those are further divided into specific countries, regions and ethnic groups.

The instruments are exhibited in a sensible manner with clear and concise captions. They are accompanied by delightful videos which demonstrate people, from that specific region, play different musical instruments . The visitor’s audio guide is automatically turned on to hear the music on the screen once you get closer..

Because of these  reasons MIM is an excellent source for viewing musical instruments from all over the world and it is a great teaching museum. The other day, when I visited the museum,  I saw many groups of  school-age kids on field trips listening to  explanations by friendly museum volunteers

But in spite of the beauty of the instruments on display, the richness of the visuals, and the vast scope of the exhibits, crossing from one continent to the next I felt increasingly detached. At first I couldn’t figure out  why, but then I realized that what was missing was some kind of cultural and historical context.

Organizing the instruments in a synchronic rather than diachronic order means that the museum chooses to focus only on the present use of musical instruments in different places around the globe and ignores the way they were used in the past or have changed over time.  The disadvantage of such an approach is that it lacks depth as no attention is given to important issues such as developments, influences or the meaning of music and music making in different places throughout the generations.

Unfortunately this choice seems to undermine the effort and the expertise that went into preparing this impressive exhibition.

But  there is no reason why the museum should not take the next step and   provide more insights about the different  instruments.This could be done easily by adding on material to the audio-guide and using it as a source for short analyses, discussions, interviews, and explanations.

I  applaud MIM for its egalitarian and inclusive philosophy which defuses the conventional hegemony of western music. The curators favored a pluralistic approach and  were careful and sensitive in their method of assembling the collection. There is no hierarchy in the exhibits and similar space is allocated to every group of people

I hope that now that the initial work is done and the museum has become such a success it will look for new and creative ways to bring more life to its exhibits and engage the visitors. I  agree that music is the amplifier of human emotions, but personally would like MIM to go beyond superficial declarations and provide a more meaningful experience.

 

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