Sounds of Music Rise in Phoenix Museum

<p>Billdewalt. Collection of museum</p>
Bill DeWalt, president of the Musical Instrument Museum, is a cultural anthropologist who earned his degrees from UConn. The exhibits include costumes, photographs, and other objects to give context to the instruments on display. Photo provided by the Musical Instrument Museum

In the 1977 science fiction film “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” aliens on board the spaceship begin to communicate with those gathered to meet them using a five-note tonal phrase. That same year, the Voyager spacecraft was sent into deep space containing 90 minutes of music samples from around the world, including recordings of a Peruvian panpipe and drum version of “El Condor Pasa” and the rock ‘n’ roll classic “Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry.

It is no coincidence that music is considered one of the key elements in opening a dialogue with another species or another culture. And it’s no coincidence that when anthropologists seek to understand a culture, they examine its customs and artistic expression, including music.

So it should not be surprising that the person who had a major role in launching the world’s first truly global musical instrument museum is a cultural anthropologist by training: UConn alum Bill R. DeWalt ’69 (CLAS), ’76 Ph.D., is president and director of the $250 million Musical Instrument Museum, which opened in Phoenix, Ariz. last year.

“What really hits you in this museum,” says DeWalt, “is that people will utilize whatever resources they have available to them in order to create these amplifiers of human emotion.”

The museum’s 285 exhibits represent instruments and objects from 194 nations. These include instruments made from natural resources, such as the jawbone of a horse used as a rattle or the skin of a calf to create the bag of a bagpipe, and others made from recycled items, such as a guitar whose sound box is made from an old Castrol oil can.

The museum was founded by Bob Ulrich, former chairman of Target, who was inspired by seeing a museum dedicated to musical instruments in Brussels, Belgium.

“The goal of the Musical Instrument Museum is to illuminate what is unique about cultures and also what is shared and universal,” Ulrich says. “MIM provides an experience like none other, allowing musical novices and experts, tourists and scholars, children and grandparents to hear, see, and feel the powerful and uniting force of music in an entirely new way.”

‘Not just an exhibition’

The museum’s 75,000 square feet of exhibition space includes five geographic galleries showing 3,500 instruments of the more than 10,000 in the museum’s collection. Among other public spaces is a special exhibition hall for thematic shows, an Artist Gallery containing instruments and objects on loan from noted musicians, the Experience Gallery where visitors can play instruments on display, and a spectacular 300-seat performance theater where you can literally “listen to the world.”

Among the items on display: An ensemble of string instruments, drums, and flutes used for South Korean Court Music; a nose flute known as a lalingeden from Taiwan; a Tanbura lyre from Bahrain; a wandindi – a bowed spike lute made of goatskin, wood, and wire from Kenya; and a goblet drum from Thailand known as a klawng yao.

More familiar instruments are found in the Artist Gallery: the Steinway piano purchased by John Lennon in 1970 and used to compose his song “Imagine;” Sennheiser microphones used by rapper Snoop Dogg and rhythm and blues artist Seal; a vest, bow tie, and baton used by Leonard Bernstein; Eric Clapton’s famous 1956 Fender Stratocaster guitar known as “Brownie;” and a tenor ukulele played by contemporary Hawaiian virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro.

One of the notable features of the museum is the use of advanced wireless technology and high-resolution video. Each visitor receives a wireless device with headphones that activates when the person is within range of each exhibit, allowing them to see the instrument on display in use on a video screen while hearing it in the headphones. The museum is a quiet place; at the same time, a visitor’s ears are filled with sounds from around the world.

<p>All American Bands. Collection of museum</p>
One of the museum's latest acquisitions is a UConn Marching Band uniform, placed on display in the All-American Bands exhibit after the Huskies football team played in the Fiesta Bowl in nearby Glendale, Ariz. Photo provided by the Musical Instrument Museum

“It’s not just an exhibition of musical instruments,” says DeWalt. “We try to create a context for those instruments. It’s why we have masks, photographs, costumes, and other objects in our collection. They help to achieve our objective, which is to make the instruments come alive.”

During the week of the Fiesta Bowl in nearby Glendale, Ariz., where the Huskies football team played its first Bowl Championship Series game against Oklahoma on New Year’s Day, DeWalt hosted a reception for UConn alumni who traveled to the game.

During a brief presentation, he noted that the museum’s latest acquisition had just been put on display – a UConn Marching Band uniform that became part of the All-American Band exhibition. Each year, uniforms from the teams competing in the Fiesta Bowl will be on display for the following year.

“The Huskies will have to work hard to get back here so we can keep the uniform on display,” he told alumni.

Fine-tuning a career

Before moving into museum management, DeWalt established a distinguished career in higher education. After earning an undergraduate degree in sociology and anthropology in Storrs and completing his doctorate in anthropology, he spent 15 years at the University of Kentucky, where he was chair of the department of anthropology and director of the Latin American studies program. He then moved to the University of Pittsburgh, where he was distinguished service professor of public and international affairs and Latin American studies. In 2001, he was named director of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. Six years later, he became president of MIM.

<p>Guitar Gallery. Collection of museum</p>
Above the entrance to the Guitar Gallery is a statement of the philosophy on which the museum is based: 'Music is the language of the soul.' Photo provided by the Musical Instrument Museum

“Part of the reason I decided to take the plunge into the museum field is that I could reach a lot more people,” he says. “I always tried to emphasize with my students that learning doesn’t stop when you get your degree. What I’m proudest about with the Musical Instrument Museum is that there is a tremendous amount of learning that happens here. It takes place in a fun and exciting way.”

Musical instrument manufacturers have joined to support MIM and its efforts to encourage music education. John D’Addario, vice chairman of the board of D’Addario and Co., a family-owned musical instrument accessory manufacturer best known for its guitar strings, says the museum’s goal matches that of the industry at large.

“We want to see young people become interested in music,” says D’Addario. “The mission of our own family foundation is to support many introductory music programs around the world. It’s another way to impress youth with the role of music and its importance in our lives. It’s an eye-opening experience for people. Bill’s put together a great team of people. He’s done a great job.”

DeWalt says MIM will always be a museum that is changing and evolving. The museum has thousands more instruments in its collections, and many of these will be used to create new kinds of exhibits.

“Wouldn’t it be interesting to see a similar instrument and see how it traveled from one place to another?” he says. “For example, bagpipes are most associated with Scotland, but they actually originated in the Middle East.”

There may not be a better place to see how people connect with music than in the museum’s Experience Gallery, where young and old can strum a guitar, bang on a drum, pluck a harp, or tap the chimes on a xylophone. The cacophony of sound brings a smile to the faces of everyone in the room. It also reinforces the philosophy of the Musical Instrument Museum that DeWalt has brought to life, which is displayed on a wall near the museum entrance: “Music is the language of the soul.”