I’m enthralled. In a display case in front of me is the last guitar Elvis Presley ever played on stage. It’s a Martin D-28 and he used it at the Market Square in Indianapolis on June 26, 1977, just six weeks before he died. He’d played the guitar every night of what would turn out to be his final 56-night concert tour.
Alongside this historic guitar is a video explaining how it was lost for a while, then found again, identified from records, and restored to the state it was in when Elvis last played it. This meant leaving the scratches on the back, which were caused by Elvis’s big belt buckles. The restoration work was entrusted to the Conservation Lab at the remarkable Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, Arizona, where Elvis’s guitar is just one of the museum’s collection of over 15,000 musical instruments. They range from Pablo Casals’ cello to the piano on which John Lennon composed Imagine.
MIM is the biggest museum of its kind in the world, with instruments from every country except, for some reason, The Maldives, though I’m sure they’re working on it. It’s all the better for being custom-built on empty land to the north of the city center, giving it high ceilings and spacious galleries. Each continent has its own gallery, and each country its own display case within that gallery. There’s also a gallery devoted to mechanical musical instruments, another to some of the world’s top musicians, and yet another to changing exhibitions – although the museum is so vast that after over six hours wandering around we never did find that gallery.
Another delight is the Experience Gallery, where a whole host of world instruments are put out for people to play, including xylophones, guitars, a banjo, what appears to be most of a gamelan orchestra, and countless drums. We had great fun banging a Native American tribal drum, though I did notice there was an Emergency Exit, which might be useful if you see a school group approaching.
MIM’s mission is set out in an introductory video, which points out that music is the one thing that unites everyone in the world, regardless of language, age, culture, gender, or wealth. It celebrates births, marriages, and rites of passage like birthdays, and is used to commemorate deaths. It can make us laugh, it can make us cry. It can be played on a Steinway piano or by banging two sticks together.
One fascinating display showcases the Recycled Orchestra, with instruments made by kids using material recovered from a huge landfill in Cateura, Paraguay. The imaginative project, started by a music teacher, has resulted in the creation of a music school for these slum kids to go to, and a youth orchestra that performs worldwide using cellos made from cans, trumpets made from old bits of plumbing, and violins created from throwaway lumps of wood. And they sound divine.
The sound is provided by wireless headphones that come with your ticket and which tune in to the videos that accompany almost every exhibit. They weren’t without occasional technical hitches, though, as I found myself reading about Hawaiian music while listening to Bob Dylan sing Mr Tambourine Man, and for a time I was being followed round by a mandolin orchestra. But I always found a docent to help sort out the problems, or swap the headphones for new ones.
Some displays have several videos, showing the instruments being played, or built, or talked about. What emerges is just how ingenious people can be in their desire to make music. In Belize a cheese grater is scraped with a fork, in Honduras the teeth in a horse’s jawbone are rubbed with a deer horn, and in Vanuatu the Leweton Women’s Water Music Troupe make music by slapping water. You can go Jammin’ with Bob Marley, listen to drumming from Cuba, steel bands from Trinidad, and watch the totally bonkers Scissors Dance from Peru.
The museum was a delight from the moment we walked through the gardens when we arrived to our last half an hour or so spent in the gift shop, though we refrained from buying the Pete Seeger doll, the Beethoven puppet fridge magnet or the Elvis jigsaw.
Visit the Musical Instrument Museum website. The museum is so big that it offers 2-day tickets as well as 1-day tickets.
All photos by Donna Dailey.