From the Vaults: Peer inside the unseen (for now) collection at the Musical Instrument Museum

From the Vaults: Peer inside the unseen (for now) collection at the Musical Instrument Museum

By Kenneth LaFave

The MIM (Musical Instrument Museum), Scottsdale’s internationally renowned home to instruments from around the globe, is like an iceberg.

What you see when you stroll for three or four hours among the exhibitions, viewing bagpipes and shakuhachi and pow wow drums, is just the tip. “Below” – tucked away, out of sight – is a collection of nearly 10,000 instruments, augmenting the 6,500-plus items already displayed.

“Thousands of items are in the wings, not yet on display but ready to go,” explains Rich Walter, the MIM’s curator for instruments from U.S. and Canada since 2014.

Of course, these hidden treasures must be stored. So where are these thousands of trumpets and drums and fiddles and whatnot kept, as they await their chance to leap into museum prominence?

“Right from the get-go, this facility was designed so that all the work could be done on site, including all the conservation, restoration, design and mount-making, so the storage is on site as well,” Walter says.

The storage room, tucked neatly to the rear and left of the Conservation Lab, is a cavernous space filled with movable shelving. Walk up and down any aisle and you will find drums of every size, shape and mode of resonance; wildly decorated guitars; a rare keyed bugle in perfect shape; a “marching baritone horn” that slings around the neck (a design quickly abandoned); and everything else you might imagine, from a magnificent sitar to some old-style screw-tuned timpani drums to a row of violins and violas.

Generally, the instruments on these shelves stand out for some unusual physical features, but once in a while you see a completely ordinary piece, like the simple clarinet lying unpretentiously on a low shelf.

“That was Buddy DeFranco’s clarinet,” Walter says, explaining why the otherwise unremarkable instrument is there. Benny Goodman’s clarinet is already on display in the museum, and at some point the instruments belonging to the Jazz Age greats will switch places.

The MIM, for those who haven’t yet discovered it, is the world’s best-regarded musical instrument museum, an imposing structure that houses galleries representing the musical instruments of every nation on Earth, from Afghanistan to Zambia. Each gallery space hosts an ensemble of instruments native to that country, with an accompanying video that allows the viewer to hear what the instruments sound like.

The items currently on display at the MIM rotate with those in storage, according to what new instruments come into the MIM’s possession, or what new spaces open among the galleries for myriad reasons, or what new ways of telling a country’s musical story pop into a curator’s head.

“Things change all the time, with some changes very subtle and others quite dramatic. We’re in a constant process of reevaluating all the gallery spaces, and the changes are made based on our having that deep collection at our disposal. For every nation or genre, there are a variety of ways to create a story and use a range of instruments to create an ensemble or iconic sound,” Walter says.

When the MIM opened in 2010, a staff of more than 100 consultants chose the initial instruments for display. With time to obtain new examples, and to restore instruments previously not shown because of damage, and to rethink the size and content of the galleries, the MIM has morphed, and continues to do so. If you go twice a year, you probably see two quite different museums.

One major example of dramatic change in a gallery space came last year, when Cuba was recognized by the United States and the embargo against that country was dropped. Prior to that, Cuba had occupied one of the smaller gallery spaces in the Latin American section at the museum. Afterward, MIM curators were free to investigate and obtain a wider variety of native Cuban instruments, which consequently doubled the size of the Cuba gallery.

Another recent change came to the Haiti gallery, which expanded when a certain kind of drum native to Haiti, but not previously in the MIM’s possession, was obtained. The find started a chain reaction that brought other instruments up from the collection to augment and enlarge the display.
In some cases, changes can link to certain musicians or groups associated with the instrument.

“We have a display called The Mandolin Orchestra. These were really popular in the U.S.A. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We were representing that very effectively, but then we had a donation of a rare, ten-string, cello-register instrument called the ‘liuto moderno’ that had been commissioned by the director of the San Francisco Mandolin Orchestra for one of the members of his ensemble,” Walters says.

“About the same time, a donation came in of a 1920s Gibson mandolin, and so we knew we had the possibility of changing the story and the display. We went about finding a couple other objects to complement those, and finally we have a whole new collection. We had a meeting just the other day to start redesigning the new installation.”

Then there was the slide trumpet given by a donor, an instrument that at first seemed no more or less interesting than other slide trumpets, until it was discovered that its former owner was one of the unusual instrument’s best-known virtuosi.

A lot of the collection comes from the generosity of donors who want their instruments to find a home that has meaning. Unfortunately, the MIM has to be picky about what it accepts. As Walter puts it, “We can’t take everybody’s upright piano.”

Below the tip of the iceberg that exhibits in the galleries, and below even the 10,000 instruments in storage, is a third level of hidden treasure: the world. The MIM’s prestige invites loans from the Smithsonian, from a sister museum in Brussels, and from private collectors everywhere. The latter made possible the MIM’s latest featured exhibition, Dragons and Vines.

Given the ability to draw on collections worldwide, it is doubtful that the backstage collection will grow terribly much in coming years. Numbers, anyway, were never the museum’s goal.

“Unlike places that pride themselves on having a huge collection as a repository, we don’t see ourselves that way. Our purpose is to own a collection that allows us to present the radical diversity of music around the globe. Everything we do serves that goal.”