Postcards: Musical Instrument Museum (Phoenix)

By Richard White, May 6, 2014

I had no idea the world’s largest museum of musical instruments (15,000 instruments from over 200 countries) was located in Phoenix when we arrived there.  It was only by chance that I found a mention of it while surfing the net.  It looked interesting so I took a chance and after a "too short" visit I can safely say it is very impressive. 

What is just as impressive though is that Robert J. Ulrich, former CEO and Chairman of Target Corporation, was able to accomplish the feat of building this world-class museum in just five years from its inception. 

The story goes (according to one of the museum’s gallery educators) that Ulrich was in Europe in 2005 looking to purchase some major artworks when he got the idea to create a major new museum focusing on musical instruments.  Using his Target store opening experience, he set a very ambitious goal of having the museum open in five years.  This is unheard of in museum circles where even planning and fundraising for a museum expansion or renovation can take decades, let alone one that had no land, no collection and no staff.

Ulrich immediately hired Rich Varda (who oversees Target’s team of store designers) as the main architect to create the building and exhibition displays.  He also hired Bille R. DeWalt, a cultural anthropologist (University of Pittsburgh) as the founding president and director to guide the development. 

True to his word, the Musical Instrument Museum opened five years later, in April 2010. The $250 million dollar museum has five huge galleries devoted to Africa and Middle East, Asia and Oceania, Europe, Latin America and Caribbean, and the United States and Canada. There are almost 300 vignettes, each with historical instruments from the country, related artifacts and a short video about the people and the instruments.

With the videos using the latest Wi-Fi technology, you don’t have to press any buttons. As soon as you get near the videos, the headphones you are provided with pick up the sound and all you need to do is listen. The museum also has a theatre for concerts, a conservation lab and an “experience gallery” where visitors can play the instruments.  You could easily spend all day there. They even have a two-day pass to allow you to come back if you haven’t given yourself enough time to digest everything in one day.

My only complaint is the museum is located at the edge of the city, making it accessible only by car. It’s unfortunate it wasn’t designed as an anchor for a new urban village or perhaps closer to some of the other Phoenix museums to create a museum district.

The guitar exhibition in the lobby.

Lyre guitar, France, c. 1815. I loved the mask, folk-art quality of this guitar

Harp guitar, Germany, 1994 (replica of 1920 harp-guitar by W.J.Dyer % Bros.)

The integration of the local costumes relating to the music and culture was impressive.

A framed collection of harmonicas.

The trumpet call harmonica was probably my favourite piece. 

The evolution of the bag pipes.

Binzasara (rattle), 20th century, wood and rope

One of the five exhibition gallery spaces each the size of a Target store.

Look from the second floor galleries to the lobby below.


The Musical Instrument Museum is impressive not only as a music museum, but also as an art museum and a cultural history museum.  It is definitely a must see if you are in Phoenix.  

When you think of Phoenix you don't think of it as a cultural mecca.  However after spending six days in the Phoenix and area my image of the city changed significantly because of the impressive museums we visited. And we only visited a few.

Here is quick list Phoenix museums: 

  • Phoenix Museums
  • Phoenix Art Museum
  • The Heard Museum
  • Arizona State University Art Museum
  • Arizona State University Museum of Anthropology
  • Arizona Science Centre
  • Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art
  • Taliesin West (Frank Lloyd Wright's School of Architecture)
  • Desert Botanical Garden  

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Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West: A Phoenix Must See

Desert Botanical Garden: Right Place, Right Time

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