At the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix AZ

At the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix AZ

By Eileen Ogintz
Tribune Media Services


It’s not easy to find a place that equally inspires kids and grown-ups, whatever their ages.

Welcome to one of the most wonderful museums I’ve visited lately — The Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, Ariz. — a 200,000-square-foot building housing nearly 15,000 instruments and artifacts from around the world with nearly 5,000 on display at one time.

See the piano where John Lennon composed the song “Imagine,” one of Paul Simon’s guitars, Elvis’ costumes and the first Steinway piano, which was built in a German kitchen in 1836.

Then take the kids to the huge experience room where they can create their own music on guitars and ukuleles, play xylophones and harps or bang on giant Chinese gongs and drums. The instruments may come from all around the globe but the music they make certainly brings us all together.

We were in Scottsdale staying at the historic JW Marriott Camelback Inn for a weekend combining hiking, biking and museum visits. (We also stopped in at the famous Heard Museum, which for more than 80 years has given visitors the opportunity to learn about the arts and culture of the native peoples of North America.

Wherever you are this winter or wherever you’re planning to go for spring break (check out our ideas for Spring Break 2013, take time to visit a museum exhibit that would especially interest your family. For example, if you are visiting New Orleans, stop in at the National World War II Museum where a special exhibit, “Gridiron Glory,” shows kids how much the sport of football has changed from its beginnings in the late 19th century to the Super Bowl today. And everyone will love the UA Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center with WWII planes hanging from the ceiling.

Interactive stovetop at AMNH food exhibit

Interactive stovetop at AMNH food exhibit

If you are in New York, don’t miss the new exhibit “Our Global Kitchen” at the American Museum of Natural History that shows us how food gets from farm to table and the role it plays in different cultures. You can even get a virtual cooking lesson and play FoodShips, the interactive game that demonstrates how difficult it is to transport various foods. (Here’s what I wrote about our visit there and other exhibits celebrating food.)

The Denver Museum of Nature and Science is opening “Mammoths and Mastodons: Titans of the Ice Age” this month, complete with fossil tusks and skulls, interactive videos and more, as you relive the story of the Snowmastadon Project, the huge Ice Age fossil site unearthed near Snowmass Village in 2010. See fossils from the site on display for the first time and watch museum volunteers prepare fossils found at various digs. (Maybe you have a future paleontologist in your gang?) If you are skiing at Snowmass, take time to visit the Ice Age Discovery Center right in the village. (Here’s what I said about our visit there.)

At large museums, seek out special family workshops and interactive areas designed for kids. The Musical Instrument Museum recently started a new Mini Music Makers weekly music program for children five and under that has proved so popular, a second day has been added each week into April.

Take time for smaller museums too. When I was visiting Washington, D.C., with a group of teenagers who attend our high school, someone suggested we make time for the National Museum of Crime and Punishment whose mission is to give visitors insight into crime and crime fighting. It’s easy to see why this museum is a winner for teenage boys with its exhibit on high-speed police chases, Bonnie and Clyde’s bullet-riddled car, the chance to try to hack into a computer or crack a safe and its crime lab. (The kids also gave thumbs up to the International Spy Museum, with its new 007 exhibit.)

Making critters at Boudin Bakery in SF

Making critters at Boudin Bakery in SF

In San Francisco, we loved the small Boudin Museum and Bakery Tour (just $3) where you see the huge sourdough bread bakery in action but also learn about San Francisco history in the process. (Did you know that the same sourdough starter has been used at Boudin since 1849? Or that Louis Boudin rescued the starter from the burning bakery following the 1906 earthquake?)

Wherever you are, let the kids help choose which museum — and which exhibits — to visit. Take a virtual tour before you go. The American Museum of Natural History has a special kids’ website with interactive games to encourage kids’ interest. So does the Smithsonian.

In many cases, like at the new Natural History Museum of Utah — spectacularly located adjacent to the Red Butte Garden where locals and visitors come to hike — you can download The Trailhead to Utah app that lets your smartphone help guide your family through the exhibits to learn more about Utah’s ecosystems, fossils and native cultures.

Today’s technology makes museum going so much easier — and more fun for everyone. At the Musical Instrument Museum, guidePORT technology enables you to watch a video and hear the music as soon as you walk up to the exhibit, headphones in your ears, without any buttons to push or text to read. (Hidden identifiers at the exhibits cue the guides when a visitor is standing in front of the video monitor.)

Musical instruments have been acquired from more than 200 countries and date back to between 4000 and 5000 BC, though today’s music and musicians, including Taylor Swift, are also celebrated.

Maybe you’ve visited Costa Rica or Switzerland or maybe your kids have a friend from Mexico. Here’s a chance to explore a little of that culture through the universal language of music — watching musicians and hearing their music while standing in front of these instruments.

Where to start? Like in any museum you start with what interests you most. I’ll be the grown-up waiting on line with the kids to play the xylophone.