One of the best music-related museums in the world and one of the top all-around museums in the nation, this Smithsonian affiliate is a must-see on a visit to Phoenix. Between 7,000 and 8,000 musical instruments from 200 countries and territories from around the world are on display at any given time, but that’s not the only thing that makes it so special. At the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM), you not only see musical instruments but hear them being played through a wireless headset as you approach each exhibit, and videos show craftsmen making the instruments and musicians playing them.
Most visitors spend three to four hours exploring the two-story, 200,000-square-foot building. In addition to the galleries, MIM has an onsite restaurant, a 300-seat theater, and a STEM Gallery that explores the connections between music, science, technology, and mathematics. It also hosts several family-friendly events throughout the year such as Experience India and Celebrate Bluegrass.
History and Background
Opened in April 2010, MIM was founded by Robert J. Ulrich, former CEO and chairman emeritus of Target Corporation. Ulrich, who loved art and museums, had considered opening an art museum near his home in the Valley until he visited the Musical Instruments Museum in Brussels, Belgium. There, he realized that most musical instrument museums primarily focused on classical Western instruments, not instruments from around the world, and he scrapped his plans for an art museum in favor of one dedicated to everyday musical instruments.
Five curators worked with ethnomusicologists, organologists, and other field experts to assemble the museum’s collection of 13,600 instruments based on their historic, artistic, and cultural value. You’ll see more than half of these on display. Instruments on display do occasionally rotate, and curators continue to add to the collection, especially folk and tribal instruments.
A lot of thought went into the architecture and design of the building as well. Its sandstone walls are meant to be reminiscent of the Southwest’s topography with the raised shapes representing musical notes. From a distance, the windows resemble piano keys while, inside, the rotunda’s curve mimics the lines of a grand piano. Take a minute to study the inlaid world map in the rotunda—the stones used come from the regions they represent.
Highlights of the Musical Instrument Museum
Music lovers could easily spend hours lost in the Geographic Galleries, but if you limit your visit to the collections, you’ll miss out on some of the museum’s best exhibits. Budget your time wisely to experience everything you want to on your visit.
- Geographic Galleries: The heart of the museum, these five galleries each focus on one of the major world regions: Africa and the Middle East, Asia and Oceana, Europe, Latin American and the Caribbean, and the United States and Canada. Highlights include the world’s largest playable sousaphone, traditional clothing worn in the regions, and special exhibits on iconic American musical instrument manufacturers such as Martin, Steinway, and locally-based Fender.
- Experience Gallery: This hands-on space lets you play instruments similar to the ones you see on display such as the West African djembe drum and Peruvian harp. You can even strike a ginormous gong. Kids love this space, but adults are encouraged to try their hand, too.
- Artist Gallery: See the instruments used by your favorite musicians. Exhibits change regularly, but past exhibits have showcased instruments used by Johnny Cash, Carlos Santana, Taylor Swift, Maroon 5, John Lennon, and Toby Keith.
- Mechanical Music Gallery: This gallery houses musical instruments that “play themselves,” including player pianos, mechanical zithers, and cylinder music boxes.
- Collier STEM Gallery: Explore the connections between music, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics through exhibits on how sound is made, the human ear, and similar subjects.
- Conservation Lab: A large viewing window lets you see how experts repair, maintain, and preserve the collection.
- Target Gallery: This exhibition gallery hosts traveling shows and special engagements. There is an additional charge to enter the Target Gallery.
MIM offers several tour options, including group tours, as well as the occasional package.
- Free Orientation Tour: This free, 30- to 45-minute tour provides an overview of three Geographic Galleries. You don’t need a reservation as long as your group is less than 10 people. Just show up Monday or Friday at 2 p.m. or every Saturday or Sunday at 11 a.m. or 2 p.m.
- VIP Tour Add-On: This behind-the-scenes tour shows learn how exhibits are created, what goes on backstage at the MIM Music Theater, and more. You will need to make reservations prior to your visit, and there is a charge of $7 per person in addition to general admission. Tours are limited to three to five people.
- Balloons and Tunes Package: This package starts early with a hot air balloon ride over the Sonoran Desert and continues with a visit to MIM.
Concerts, Special Events and Programs
MIM hosts concerts in its Music Theater, special events throughout the year, and classes for all ages. Visit the calendar for more details on upcoming events.
- MIM Music Theater: This intimate space seats 300 and hosts approximately 200 artists, many of whom are performing in Arizona for the first time, every year. Tickets for the concerts can be purchased online or at the box office located in the museum’s main lobby.
- Signature Events: These family-friendly, weekend-long programs celebrate cultures, music genres, and musical icons with live music and dance, hands-on activities, curator talks, and more. Admission to signature events is free with a paid museum admission. MIM typically holds one signature event per month.
- Programs: MIM offers several programs for kids. Mini Music Makers introduces the youngest, from ages 0 to 5, to music through song, dance, and playing instruments while Musical Adventures for kids ages 6 to 10, explores culture as well. Junior Museum Guides prepares kids in grades 6 through 12 to become museum guides.
How to Visit
The museum is open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. except on Thanksgiving. On Christmas Day, it opens an hour later at 10 a.m. Tickets can be purchased online before you go or at guest services when you arrive and special exhibition and concert tickets are sold separately.
MIM is usually the busiest on weekday mornings when school is in session and children come for field trips although weekends, especially around the holidays or when special events are going on, can be busy, too. Plan accordingly.
Although you can bring your camera, backpacks, food and beverages are not allowed. Food and drink can be purchased at Café Allegro.
MIM is located in North Phoenix, just off the Loop 101. If you are driving from downtown Phoenix, take the Piestewa Freeway (SR 51) north to the Loop 101 and head east to Tatum Boulevard. Turn right Tatum, and go one block to East Mayo Boulevard. MIM is at the corner of Tatum and East Mayo boulevards. There is plenty of free parking at the museum.
From the East Valley, make your way to US 60, and go north on the Loop 101 to Tatum Boulevard. From the West Valley, take the I10 to the Loop 101, and drive north to Tatum Boulevard. If you don’t have a car, rideshare services can get you to MIM from downtown Phoenix for about $25.
You can also take public transportation to MIM. Depending on your starting point, the most direct route is probably to take the Valley Metro Light Rail to the 44th Street station and board Bus 44. Although it will take roughly an hour (and 53 stops) to get from the station to MIM, the bus does stop at the corner of Tatum and East Mayo boulevards where the museum is located.