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The Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) has been in the news a lot lately.  In fact, it was featured on NPR today.  Last week I had the pleasure of personally visiting the Musical Instrument Museum with my out of town family and I absolutely loved it.  The building and the surrounding landscaping are fantastic, but that’s not why I love this museum.  I love this museum because it celebrates, respects and cherishes every culture in the world in a  state that can easily be considered a little xenophobic after the passage of SB 1070.  Having a varied cultural background myself, – East Indian, African born, and raised Muslim – I haven’t felt more at home and more beloved for it than at the MIM.

I felt at the MIM the opposite as the way I feel at, say, the Culver’s in Phoenix, a place where the owners of that particular franchise decided to display quotes from the Bible on their restaurant walls.  I would not mind this at all were quotes from the Bhaghavad Gita, the Torah or the Quran also on display, but they’re not.  Whereas this tactic may be pleasing to a specific slice of the population, it alienates others.  MIM, on the other hand, embraces every culture, including American pop culture along with the most obscure of cultures such as that of the people of Mon.  A small example of MIM’s intentionally inclusive approach is the fact they they display the quote “Music is the language of the soul” in various languages and scripts in their lobby.

They don’t just display musical instruments at MIM.  They, in essence, feature different cultures of the world, hitting most peoples, even the most unknown, through the medium of musical instruments.  What MIM does is recognize that something like music, an element common in every culture in the world, is a great way to relate to and find commonalities with “the other” sans the political, religious and social baggage.  An example is the Middle East room, where the display for Israel stands side by side with the displays of Arab countries.  There is no fight for space, no shunning of each other in the land of musical instruments.  Every country is equally recognized for its particular musical contribution to the world.

MIM is so much more than a musical instrument museum. It’s very much a cultural education in every sense and what a fun education it is!  Whereas most museums are visually driven, MIM, appropriately, is more audio based.  You get headphones with your admission ticket and as you wander the rooms, each display comes alive with the sound of music.  It is a truly engaging, disarming and fascinating way to learn about other countries.

A lot of my Central Phoenix friends and colleagues complain that MIM is so far out in the boon docks.  I was one of those people before I made the trek out there.  I do wish it was closer to Central Phoenix or heck, right inside of Central Phoenix, say across from the Phoenix Art Museum filling up that dreadful empty lot on the northwest corner of McDowell and Central. But alas, it is where it is, near Desert Ridge, a full half hour drive from Central Phoenix and not easily accessed through transit.  Sigh.

But, that being said, I think it’s time we urbanists embrace MIM, despite its unfortunate location.  It is too great a place, too well done, with too good a message for us to dismiss it merely because it didn’t end up where we wanted it to go.  I urge everyone who hasn’t been to visit this great cultural treasure that is, despite it’s ex-urban disposition, a part of Phoenix.  MIM is on par with some of the world’s greatest museums and in fact is an extremely unique one.  We would be fools not to celebrate it, show it off to our out of town guests and make a point to visit often.  Yes, at $15 for general admission and $10 for kids, it’s a little pricey.  But I found the experience to be worth every penny and I have no problem paying this small price for the cultural capital you get in return.

Photo Credit:  My sister-in-law and niece trying out some of the instruments at MIM.  Photo by the author.

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12 Responses

  1. I was one of those people (“Central Phoenix friends and colleagues complain that MIM is so far out in the boondocks”) and even after visiting MIM, I’m still one of them.

    The institution is worthwhile, but the location is more than just disappointing — it’s offensive. With so much vacant real estate in the core of Phoenix, it’s simply not appropriate to situate a major cultural institution on the city’s remote fringe.

    As for the price, my issue is not so much the relatively high admission fee, but, rather, the lack of a membership option with unlimited visits. I almost always buy museum memberships because they allow for brief drop-in visits without fear of not getting one’s money’s worth.

    With young children, that’s critical. Sometimes, they’re well behaved and we can enjoy a museum for hours. Other times, they’re fussy and we need to evacuate after less than an hour. If we’ve not paid an admission fee for that specific visit and can come back another time without additional cost, there’s no sense of wasted money.

    At most museums around town, a membership allows for unlimited visits, and one can do the math to see how many visits it would take to recoup the value of a membership. At MIM, however, no such option exists. There’s no traditional membership option. Instead, there are circles of giving with a minimum level of $250. Not only is that price much higher than membership at most other museums, but, even worse, it includes only 10 visits. In other words, the cost per visit with a membership is $25, $10 more than the regular price.

    I’ll certainly visit MIM again. I’d be foolish to deny myself and my family its rich array of learning opportunities and possibilities for cultural enrichment. Nevertheless, I’ll probably never love it the way I love PAM and the Heard. There’s no easy way to undo the bad site selection, but I hope MIM will at least reconsider its membership options if it wishes to cultivate a base of local support.

    • Taz Loomans says:

      David, thanks as always for your thoughts and your perspective. You bring up a really good point regarding membership, I think MIM should definitely reconsider their policy on this to make it easier for locals to visit frequently, especially locals with kids like yourself. I agree, it’s such a rich cultural education, I would hope many many children have a chance to experience it.

  2. On a more positive note, I remembered right after posting my first comment that NPR featured MIM this morning:

    http://www.npr.org/2011/01/05/132089395/museum-hosts-musical-instruments-of-200-countries

  3. Will Novak says:

    Agreed Taz it should’ve been built on the NW Corner of Central and McDowell. I went to HS not very far from the MIM and for the most part the people that live way out there just aren’t the type that are going to support museums and the arts en masse.

    Across from PAM, the MIM could’ve really succeeded. Plus it would’ve made that “Arts District” sign as you get off the I 10 and the name “Midtown Museum District” actually make a bit of sense. They could’ve got a lot of businesses from visiting convention folks and been a part of 1st Fridays too…ah well.

    I hope it survives way out there, but I don’t have a great feeling about it.

  4. Taz Loomans says:

    Will, I think we should help it succeed! I don’t want to see it go away or languish, it’s a really good museum with a great concept. The location was a bad idea, but I feel like we should swallow that bitter pill and support it anyway in order to retain this cultural heritage in the Valley…

  5. Taz,

    Your words about swallowing a bitter pill reinforce how torn I am about MIM. I love having such a unique addition to our cultural landscape, but, at the same time, I think we die a death of a thousand cuts when time after time we forgive the next concentric circle of sprawl that weakens our metro area’s core.

    If we don’t hold institutions of all types –not only museums, but also employers, retailers, etc. — accountable for appropriate site selection, then we become enablers allowing the next organization with a misguided desire for a remote patch of desert to succeed despite an irresponsible choice of location.

    Am I advocating a boycott of MIM? No — for all the reasons stated in my first post. Nevertheless, I’ve decided to draw the line by not supporting MIM beyond the required admission fees. Over the years, I’ve contributed to fundraising campaigns for the Heard and PAM, but I just can’t see doing that for MIM. I guess I’m willing to swallow a bitter pill once in a while, but I can’t see taking that pill at any dosage beyond what is essential.

  6. Taz Loomans says:

    David, I see your point, there is such a fine line between enabling bad decisions and questionably sacrificing something (i.e. the success of MIM) for the cause (i.e. no more sprawl).

    I’m also torn on this issue. But I know it would break my heart if MIM didn’t succeed, even though it’s location is so frustrating to the greater good of our city.

  7. Liz Merchant says:

    To those who complain about the MIM’s location: I celebrate it! Of all the places in the WORLD where it could have been built it was built in our town. How lucky can we get???

  8. Dave says:

    it’s about 20 miles from central phoenix people. you can loop around all of phoenix in about an hr and a half.

    plenty to do at the museum to spend more than 4 times your commute time if you go on a good theater night. can only recommend that you enjoy their dogfish beer, yea they know what’s up in that cafe, and walk it off exploring their acres of media-rich real estate.

    sorry bout the kids thing. sounds like a downer.

  9. Liz, I may learn to live with MIM’s location, but I will never celebrate it. Culture sprawl is every bit as harmful as job sprawl and residential sprawl. Of course I’m flattered that MIM chose Phoenix as its home, but the specific site within Phoenix reflects poor decision making.

    Dave, the fact that MIM is only 20 minutes from Central Phoenix by freeway goes back to my “death of a thousand cuts” statement. If we use short freeway drives to rationalize building over virgin desert when there’s plenty of vacant land in the city core, then we are just keeping ourselves on the sprawl treadmill. Freeways give us the illusion that places are closer than they really are and allow us to overlook vacant land and neglected neighborhoods on the way to destinations on the fringe. Try to visit MIM by bus or bike, and it will quickly become apparent just how remote its location really is.

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