March 21, 2008
  When You Walk by, this Museum Springs (and Sings) to Life
The Musical Instrument Museum goes a step beyond the player piano

by Zach Mortice
Associate Editor

Summary: The Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix will showcase instruments from around the world with the aid of audio and video samples that exhibit the collection pieces in their natural cultural context. Funded and led by a Target Corporation executive and designed by a Target vice president of store design, the museum’s design features a palette of stone materials and subtle, Modern massing that is drawn from the surrounding landscape.

How do you . . . design a museum to exhibit musical instruments in a way that communicates their cultural vitality?

Bill DeWalt, president and director of the Musical Instrument Museum that’s breaking ground in Phoenix, has a name for the typical way musical instruments are exhibited—the “licorice stick approach”—a clarinet hanging sedately on a wall. This approach may be ideal for ethnomusicologists and other experts who want to ponder an item’s pedigree and history, but it doesn’t do much to engage the average museum visitor.

As the head of what is expected to be the world’s first comprehensively global musical instrument museum, DeWalt has been challenged to implement an alternative way of displaying the tools of music that brings them to life and explains their significance as cultural artifacts. DeWalt (and the museum’s architect, Richard Varda, FAIA) say that until recently the technology did not exist to allow musical instruments to shine as dynamic signifiers of culture in museum exhibits. At their museum, visitors will be given wireless headsets that will play audio and video samples of the instruments on display, all triggered only by museum-goers proximity to the exhibit.

“You’re not just looking at the instruments and admiring them as art objects, although some people will come and do that, but you’re also seeing the instruments played within their cultural context,” says DeWalt.

Out of the Big Box
For a museum that seeks to catalogue a world’s worth of musical traditions, the project’s own origins are strikingly concentrated. It started as Target Corporation CEO and Chair Robert Ulrich’s idea. Ulrich, who has been a primary source of funds for the museum, sits on the museum’s board and hired DeWalt. Varda, currently a senior vice president at Target in charge of store design, joined the project after Ulrich asked him for some guidance on the design of the nascent museum. Varda prepared himself to advise Ulrich on how to select an architect for the project, but when he betrayed that he’d like to design it himself, Ulrich obliged. To assemble a team for the project, Varda went back to his old architecture firm, Minneapolis-based RSP.

Ulrich also chose the museum’s location. The museum was attracted to Phoenix because of its diverse and rapidly expanding population, as well as its prized status as a popular tourist destination. The museum, which broke ground in early February, will sit on a 20-acre site on the north side of the sprawling, Sunbelt city as part of a 5,000-acre master planning site called Desert Ridge. The two-story, 180,000-square-foot museum is scheduled to be completed by 2010, when museum organizers hope it will have 5,000 instruments to display.

Stone and music
Varda describes the museum as “a Modern massing and design that is trying to be harmonious with the desert landscape and the geology of Arizona,” but shies away from giving its aesthetic qualities a geographically specific label like “Southwestern.” Stone is the exterior’s primary material. Most of the museum’s first floor is an orange-hued sandstone sourced from Arizona. A lighter shade of sandstone is used on the second floor, and greenish-gray slate covers the building’s central circulation corridor.

The museum is oriented to the west, with an open, landscaped courtyard and a parking lot at the ground elevation. The courtyard brings visitors into the museum’s primary circulation device: the slate-covered central circulation spine that Varda nicknamed the museum’s “river.” This two-story, gently curving volume runs north and south through the middle of the museum and connects to the museum gift shop, auditorium, lobby, meeting spaces, and galleries. On the north end of the circulation spine is the museum’s 300-seat music theater. On the south end are administrative and support spaces, as well as galleries. The east side of the circulation spine contains two floors of galleries and more administrative and support spaces. All this forms the footprint of the building in an open-ended C-shape.

Varda took a modest and understated approach to Modernism with his design. Renderings seem to indicate that the most striking visual element of the museum will be the various colors of the stone façade. “[We] essentially didn’t want architectural form to take over and express itself independently of the purpose of the museum,” he says.

Stone is also used as a consistent element inside. Granite stone tiles will make up the flooring in the public areas, and the music theater will have walls that are partially stone.

The visitors walking over these stone tiles will select which audio and video instrument exhibits they examine simply by walking near them. The wirelessly transmitted audio signals will be synchronized with video installations of the instruments on display being played. The galleries are organized by geography, with sections showcasing instruments from North America, Latin America, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and more. The museum’s collection will have a 100-year-old Javanese gamelan, an Indonesian ready-made ensemble instrument that features xylophones, drums, and gongs. It will also exhibit six-foot-long slit gong drums from the Congo, decorated as stylized depictions of animals. The museum will have hundreds of these displays, and DeWalt says that every country in the world will be represented.

To protect and affirm
A measure of success for the museum will be its ability to preserve and protect folkloric instruments while still affirming their status as artifacts of vital, living cultures. Varda says that because each exhibit shows visitors how an instrument fits into its respective culture and how different instruments from different cultures often fulfill the same role, the cultural context of the museum’s pieces are always kept at the forefront, fending off notions of a scholarly quarantine of still-evolving musical traditions. “It’s going to be almost as much a cultural learning experience as a musical learning experience,” he says.

Preliminary loan agreements have already put about 1,000 pieces in the Musical Instrument Museum’s possession, some from museum giants like the Smithsonian and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Such museums, which often don’t have the room to display these objects or the inclination to make room, are anxious to get these musical instruments out of storage and in front of the public. Varda thinks it’s about time. “Musical instruments have been kind of ignored by the museum world,” he says.

And that’s a shame. As DeWalt says: “It’s easy to make the argument that the art form that affects more people on an everyday basis is music.”

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Visit the Museum of Musical Instrument’s Web site.