Musical Instrument Museum provides sonic thrills from around the world
December 11, 2017
Story and photos by Crystal Lewis Brown
Usually, a group of people walking around a museum wearing headphones – completely oblivious to those around them – is a bad thing. But at the Musical Instrument Museum, headphones are an integral part of the experience.
I expected the museum to have a host of instruments (hence the name) but was completely unprepared for just how much the 200,000-square-foot space had to offer.
My family members and I were each given a headset resembling an old-school Walkman radio that would serve as audio guide throughout our visit. For those wanting something a bit more formal, guided tours are also available. We handed the museum map to our 8-year-old and let him guide the way.
I’ve had headset tours before, but I wasn’t expecting what we got at the MIM. As we neared certain exhibits, the instruments on display started tinkling in our ears.
Saying the museum is big is an understatement. It’s home to about 16,000 instruments from around the world. In addition to special exhibits, there are several other galleries, including the Mechanical Music, Experience and Artist galleries. There’s also the Conservation Lab and a Family Center with chairs and toys, for when your little ones need a break (more on that later). It’s also split into five geographic regions: Africa and the Middle East, Asia and Oceana, Europe, Latin America and United States/Canada. There’s also a food court inside the museum.
We started our self-guided tour downstairs and our kiddos were immediately entranced. Both of our children are budding musicians – not surprising given that their parents are a former pianist and a singer/former celloist. The older one plays the viola and the 5-year-old requested and received a guitar for his birthday. So it was no surprise they took to the museum like a fish to water. The younger one watched and listened to each performance in the Artist Gallery, which included instruments, concert footage, performance outfits and more. He was particularly entranced by the guitar performances, and was often several exhibits behind the rest of the family. Performances were displayed on a television screen with numbers on a placard so that we could easily follow along to performance names and information. The quote for that gallery was “One more song,” as he begged to listen to song after song.
All of us were entranced by what I thought was at first a woman making music by simply waving her hands. In fact, in a way, she kind of was doing that. She was playing a theremin, an electronic instrument controlled by an antenna without the player never actually touching it. We then headed to the Mechanical Music Gallery, where we witnessed some of the coolest – and creepiest – mechanical instruments (instruments that “play themselves”), including player pianos and animated musical dolls.
Our next stop was one the children enjoyed the most: The Experience Gallery. The Experience Gallery was filled with playable versions of many of the instruments found throughout the museum. We tried our hand at playing the theremin, strummed guitars, banged a gong and played many more instruments from around the world whose names I don’t know.
We then headed upstairs to explore each of the Geographic Galleries. Having spent so much time downstairs, and dawdling through Africa and the Middle East, our kindergartner finally got tired somewhere in the East Asia exhibit. While he had a brief “up” moment as we listened to an orchestra simulation (it got extra points from the kids since a child narrated it), it was clear he was spent.
In hindsight, those visiting with younger children might be better off touring upstairs at the start of the trip, then taking a break for lunch at the cafe. That way, they can end the trip on the bottom floor with them playing in the Experience Gallery. As for us, we were at least well-suited for a good nap by the time we reached home.