Legendary Musical Instruments
Text by Tyler Phillips

With its exhibition, Treasures: Legendary Musical Instruments,
MIM celebrates the power of music across 6,000 years of history.

Above: Musical Instrument Museum is open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. 

Musical Instrument Museum’s newest exhibition, Treasures: Legendary Musical Instruments, celebrates some of the world’s most notable musical moments, performance traditions, and musical instrument developments. Eighty exceptional instruments fill the Target Gallery, including some of the finest from MIM’s collection and more than twenty loans from renowned museums, private collections, and musicians around the world.

From the ancient Olympic Games to the unveiling of the Eiffel Tower, history is brought to life by the instruments that forever changed the world. Treasures: Legendary Musical Instruments showcases some of the one-of-a-kind musical instruments and artifacts that have been discovered and preserved throughout history, with at least one dating back to an estimated 6,000 years ago. The first full-sized guitar, as we know them today, is on display, as well as historical Chinese drums, Jimi Hendrix’s Black Widow guitar, the world’s largest sousaphone, similar to a Tuba, whose bells has been engraved with various designs and markings. and an ancient Mayan trumpet made from a conch shell that’s been engraved with cultural markings and symbols.

Above: The exhibit showstopper is an Erard grand piano made especially for the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris.

Attendees will have an up close view of world-renowned craftsmanship. Intricate details of engraved brass, carved patterns, and iridescent inlay represent talented craftsmen, companies, and families from around the globe that molded instrument evolution. Throughout the exhibition, original video content uncovers these stories and the instruments’ represented traditions with performances and interviews by museum curators and notable musicians, such as ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro, guitarist Jiji Kim, and mandolinist David Grisman.

“We want people to really think of MIM as a resource,” shares Rich Walter, MIM’s Curator for the United States, Canada and Europe. “These pieces do not exist in a lot of other places, especially these historic objects. They’re really special examples. They’re all special (the instruments on display), but often they are contextualized as part of separate nations or genres. Bringing them to the forefront in this Treasures exhibition helps us show the singular qualities that make each instrument stand out on a global stage.”

“I hope that when people come see this Treasures exhibition, they sort of rethink their own definition of treasures because we give them a lot of opportunities to imagine the rarity of an item, the artful qualities of an item, the historic value of an item and they all qualify as treasures,” said Walter. “Ultimately, that’s really the whole goal — is to recognize and celebrate the fact that for thousands of years, people have determined that music should be a really central and important part of their lives.” 

Above: Jimi Hendrix’s Black Widow guitar is included in the Treasures: Legendary Musical Instruments exhibition.

“The physical centerpiece is an Erard grand piano made especially for the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris, and it’s a total stunner,” Walter says. MIM Executive Director April Salomon agrees. “The showstopper is the grand piano that is ornately gilded and gorgeous,” she says. “It’s really intricately crafted and captivates your imagination. You can’t help but be just awestruck by its beauty. One of our volunteers played the piano for the accompanying video so guests can hear how it sounds, which is absolutely beautiful. It’s really significant in its own right.”

For a more complete experience, join one of MIM’s curators on a highlights tour of Treasures: Legendary Musical Instruments. Get a curated glimpse of music history and learn more about the stories behind the instruments. The tours last 30–45 minutes and complements the self-guided experience. Upcoming tours will be held on January 13 and 27 and February 10 and 24. For additional dates, please consult the website.

Treasures: Legendary Musical Instruments
Through September 2022
Musical Instrument Museum
4725 E. Mayo Blvd., Phoenix