It's billed as the best museum you'll ever hear.
And for a facility dedicated to the world of musical instruments, that sounds about right.
The Musical Instrument Museum in far northern Phoenix not only has thousands of horns, drums, strings and more behind glass cases.
It has a video inside each case showing musicians playing those instruments in a native setting, complete with a sound track that is beamed to your headphone as you hover at each exhibit.
Throw in a daily educational recital for the price of admission, free guided tours, a pleasant café and a fast-in, fast-out location at the top of Loop 101, and the MIM is ready-made for a Spring Break day trip from Flagstaff. It's even open until 9 p.m. on Thursday and Friday for those wanting to drop in on the way home from a spring training baseball game.
We visited the museum on a recent Sunday afternoon, and the parking lot was nearly full. Since its opening several years, the word is out about the museum -- it has risen to No. 2 on Trip Advisor's list of most recommended Valley tourist attractions.
The museum was founded by Robert J. Ulrich, the former CEO of the Target Corporation, whose interests included African art and world music. The museum is arranged by continents and countries, and it's recommended that visitors start with the oldest cultures -- African, Chinese, Middle Eastern -- first. By the time you arrive at the Arizona centennial exhibit and hear Carlos Nakai on his flute and Stevie Nicks shaking her tambourine, it's clear that music has common roots in our species around the globe.
Having played the clarinet as a boy, I was particularly interested in the progression of hollow tree limbs and valved reeds right up through the woodwinds we know today. True, I could have looked up each one in a musical online encyclopedia. But the succession of audiovisuals of herdsmen, shamans and tuxedoed Austrians blowing on them connected me to a musical heritage in a way I never would have imagined.
Some of the exhibits have a "wow" factor that makes you want to go down to the gift shop and buy the CD right away. The Indonesian gamelan exhibit has a symphonic sound that is startling in its complexity yet inviting, and the double-decker marimbas of Guatemala made me want to attend one of their weddings. As for the Peruvian scissor dancer ... you have to see and hear it to believe it.
The daily recital in the concert hall was a little less satisfying. It featured an Egyptologist from UCLA who spent the first 45 minutes delivering a slide lecture on the fingering techniques used on obscure ancient instruments of the Nile Valley. By the time he was ready to demonstrate, we were ready to stretch our legs again.
We were only able to visit for an afternoon but wished we'd had a full day -- each country's exhibit is so fascinating that moving through just one continent can take several hours. We missed a chance to play some instruments ourselves in the Experience Gallery and didn't have much time in the Conservation Lab, where instruments are being restored and repaired.
Tickets are not cheap -- $15 for adults and $10 for kids 6 to 17. Counting the cost of gas and food, it's at least a $100 day trip for a Flagstaff family of four. But the MIM is as close to a world-class museum as there is in Arizona, which makes it a $100 bargain in my book.
If you go ...
WHAT: Musical Instrument Museum
WHERE: 4725 E. Mayo Blvd., just south of Loop 101 at the Tatum Boulevard exit.
WHEN: Open Daily. Mon, Tues, Wed and Sat 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.;Thur, Fri 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
COST: Admission is Adults $15; Seniors $13; Youth 6-17 $10; Kids 5 and younger free
INFO: www.theMIM.org or (480) 478.6000