The Musical Instrument Museum (@mimphx), located inside a massive 250,000 square foot (23,226 square meter) facility in the Arizona desert, is home to over 16,000 instruments, from a circa-1600s Stradivarius violin to the piano John Lennon composed “Imagine” on to one of Taylor Swift’s guitars.
“We ask what instruments are important to a particular country or part of the world, and then we seek them out,” says Colin Pearson, one of MIM’s curators. And the museum makes good on that mission, with different sections for every continent and culture.
“Our philosophy is to have visitors come in and not only hear the instruments, but see them played in the cultures in which they’re being played in,” says Karen Farugia, the museum’s head of marketing.
The special Stradivarius exhibit gives visitors an opportunity to hear the legendary handcrafted line of violins, as well as discover its nearly 400-year history, from humble beginnings in Italy to international acclaim. The MIM also breaks down the science of the instrument, including the physics of the sound it produces.
The focus on science also extends over to the 3-D printed orchestra exhibit. When a visitor steps in front of it, the orchestra begins to play automatically, with slices of the floor lighting up in accordance with which section you’re hearing.
Unsurprisingly, some of the more popular exhibits are star-driven, from a whole collection of instruments played by Johnny Cash (on loan from his family) to the final guitar that Elvis Presley ever played in concert — a 1975 Martin D-28.
“Somewhere along the line, after he passed, [the guitar] got broken,” Pearson says. “The whole neck was broken off. So before we could display it, we had to piece it back together and restore it, and now it looks essentially perfect.”
The museum has a dedicated conservation lab for its valuable old instruments, but not everything there is meant to be kept in pristine condition, untouched forever. There’s an entire educational section, called the Experience Gallery, with hands-on learning for school classes and visitors, allowing kids to really play the sorts of instruments they see in the exhibitions. And the 300-seat theater then gives them the opportunity to hear the pros play, too. As Colin explains, “Most of the museum is devoted to music that is happening now.”