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Beating the drum for Phoenix's Musical Instrument Museum

Former Target CEO Robert Ulrich wants to represent the musical culture of every country on the planet.

April 18, 2010|By Randy Lewis

Matthew Hill, associate curator in charge of instruments of North America and the museum's guitar collection, noted a heavy concentration of Native American musical instruments he's working with, most of them new, because typically instruments that have been played ceremonially are considered sacred and therefore off limits for museum exhibitions.

Cultural issues, as well as social and political ones, abound. Curator Jennifer Post arrived in Mongolia in 2008 to bring back a number of instruments just as a state of emergency had been declared after a contentious election.

During ensuing riots a cultural center including many musical instruments was set on fire; Post had to persuade local authorities on the lookout for looting that her acquisitions had been acquired legitimately.

Given the speed with which the collection has been built, not surprisingly there are gaps some of the curators are looking to fill. Hill would love to track down a homemade double bass played by Roy Talbot of the Talbot Brothers calypso band from Bermuda, while Amanda Villepastour, hired less than a year ago, is aiming to bolster the collection's representation from several regions of Africa.

Curators also have to be alert to instruments made after the Endangered Species Act of 1973 governing international trade. Another hurdle is fully realizing Ulrich's vision for a new-model 21st century museum.

"What we've done here from the very beginning, and something I'm absolutely the most passionate about, is I don't want to create a museum and then leave it as is for 25 years, or even 10 years," De Walt said. "We want to be a museum that's constantly in evolution. . . . Two weeks after opening, we're going to continually be changing as we get better things."

randy.lewis@latimes.com

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