One of the best things about visiting a new city or country is the opportunity to check out their museums. Whether they are small and quirky, focused on niche subjects or historical events, or are considered landmarks in their own right, there’s a museum that will appeal to every taste. Phoenix, Arizona is no exception, and if you happen to be a lover of American Indian art or are at all interested in any kind of music, you’ll definitely want to check out these 2 must-visit museums in Phoenix, Arizona: The Heard Museum and the Musical Instruments Museum.
Must-See Museum #1: The Heard Museum
When it comes to museums in Phoenix, The Heard Museum is as much a part of the city as its founders, Dwight and Maie Bartlett Heard, who had a vision for this dusty desert town when they came here from Chicago back in 1895. The Heards saw the potential Phoenix had to offer, and they achieved great success in ranching, publishing and real estate, becoming two of the town’s most prominent and influential citizens.
The Heards were also committed to establishing Phoenix as a cultural centre, and this, combined with Maie Heard’s love of tribal and American Indian art, led to the establishment of the Heard Museum in Phoenix in 1929, one of the greatest legacies they left the city.
The Heard Museum Celebrates 90 Years
Today the Heard Museum has grown from a small museum housing the Heards’ personal collection of art and artefacts, to one of the most renowned museums in Phoenix, boasting more than 44,000 pieces of art, most of which are focused on the American Indian.
Along with their permanent collection of baskets, textiles, jewellery and pottery, the Heard hosts temporary exhibitions including one that blew me away called the Grand Procession.
On Now: The Grand Procession
The Grand Procession is an exhibition of contemporary Plains Indian dolls from the Charles and Valerie Diker Collection, and it is quite simply stunning in its beauty and craftsmanship. The dolls are all made by 5 women artists, Rhonda Holy Bear, Jamie Okuma and three members of the Growing Thunder family: Joyce Growing Thunder Fogarty, her daughter Juanita, and granddaughter Jessa Rae.
The figures are small-scale representations of the Indigenous peoples who lived in the Great Plains and Great Basin regions in the late 19th century, and are displayed in grand regalia similar to what would be worn during a traditional powwow. The dolls stand about 14 inches high or so on average, and the details of the beadwork, quillwork, and stitching on these miniature models have to be seen to be believed.
Each artist makes every element by hand, whether it is the garments, the tools, accessories, or even horses, and the faces of their dolls reflect each artist’s own individual style.
Rhonda Holy Bear carves her figures’ faces from wood, and their dignified, serene expressions were influenced by the portraits on Egyptian sarcophagi, which Holy Bear found particularly inspiring.
Some of Holy Bear’s figures are modelled after actual individuals, like this one of Crow Chief Two Leggings.
Others are more interpretive, like Maternal Journey, an allegorical multi-figure piece representing the cycle of life. This intricately crafted grouping features a regal Plains mother mounted on a mare, her expression one of dignity and confidence, and behind her are her twin girls being transported on a travois.
The twins face backwards in a symbolic nod to the past, while at the same time their mother leads them towards the future and their destiny.
The three generations of Growing Thunder artists are known for their beadwork, a skill handed down from grandmother Joyce. Their colourful quillwork is equally labour-intensive and the exquisitely executed figures these women create can take months or years to complete. Beads are used on the figures’ stylized faces as well which are made of animal hide and painted with traditional markings.
The artists develop strong connections to these figures as they work on them, especially since some figures were inspired by their own family members. Others reflect the special nuances of some tribes: Preston and Skylar depicts a Cayuse warrior and his horse, both of which are elaborately attired reflecting the special relationship these people had with their horses. The piece took more than four years to complete, including constructing the horse, covering it with hide and painting it.
In contrast to the more detailed faces of the other two artists, Jamie Okuma’s dolls’ faces are purposefully left without expression. This is so that the viewer can interpret the dolls’ stories for themselves, imagining whatever emotions they represent. And since every visitor may interpret them differently, this becomes part of the story.
Personally, I’ve always been fascinated with anything miniature, so I couldn’t get enough of this exhibit – in fact, I returned to the Heard Museum for a second time specifically to see the Grand Procession again. The craftsmanship on these tiny masterpieces in the beadwork, embellishments and textiles simply blew me away.
But there was something else that drew me to these figures too, beyond just their beautiful details: they seemed to possess a spirituality that gave these soft sculptures a presence much larger than their diminutive size.
TIP: The Grand Procession exhibition of 23 soft sculpture dolls is the largest collection of its kind, and is on display at the Heard Museum only until April 17, 2020.
Kachina Dolls, Jewellery and More
Kachina dolls are an important part of Hopi culture and the Heard Museum has a large collection of these iconic figures, arranged chronologically from the late 19th century right up to present day. It’s interesting to see the evolution of these figures as materials and workmanship changed over the years, from more simplistic dolls from the late 19th century to elaborately carved, dynamic modern figurines.
In the matriarchal Hopi society, Kachinas were traditionally only given to girls twice a year, and each doll is meant to represent a ‘teaching moment’ or convey a life lesson of some sort. The dolls were collected until girls reached puberty, and were traditionally hung on the walls (later versions were made with bases to sell to tourists).
The Heard Museum’s collection of Kachina dolls is as priceless as it is beautiful (today, Kachinas are some of the most sought-after collectibles and even modern Kachinas can sell for more than $10,000, depending on the artist and the quality of the piece.)
The Navajo: The Best Weavers in the World
Speaking of value, the Heard Museum has some excellent examples of Navajo rugs and woven textiles, from Chief Blankets dating back to the mid 1800s, to modern examples for sale in their Museum Store.
Widely recognized as some of the best weavers in the world, the Navajo viewed weaving as more than just a craft or skill: it was a way of expressing themselves creatively as well as instilling discipline, patience and tenacity as they perfected their skill. And skilled they were: so tight was the weave on these blankets that they could shed water, and these prestigious items were a mark of wealth and authority (hence the designation ‘Chief blankets’).
FUN FACT: A man who was watching the Antiques Roadshow saw an item that resembled a hand-me-down ‘rug’ he had stuffed away in his closet, something no one else wanted after his grandmother died. It turned out to be one of the best surviving examples of a Navajo Chief Blanket and it sold for $1.5 MILLION DOLLARS in 2012 at auction!!
No collection of American Indian art – especially Southwesten Indian art –can be complete without jewellery, and especially turquoise jewellery which carried deep significance for native people.
Turquoise represented water, sky, health and protection, and the Zuni and Navajo fashioned beautiful belts, rings, necklaces and even bolo ties using this material. The Heard’s collection is quite extensive, with both antique and modern pieces that showcase the skill of these talented artists.
TIP: The Heard Museum has two Museum Shops: one is more for souvenirs and books, the other sells excellent quality authentic rugs, pottery, Kachina dolls, jewellery and more. (Be sure to bring your credit card with the highest limit, though, as you could get carried away here!)
The Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair and Market
As part of its mission to be the world’s preeminent museum for the presentation and advancement of American Indian art, the Heard Museum holds an annual Fair and Market the first week of March which attracts more than 600 artists and 10,000 visitors to this artistic and cultural showcase. The Fair includes a Best of Show juried competition that showcases the best of American Indian art. In fact, some of the museum’s pieces in their permanent collection came from these winning artists. If you are looking to see or purchase some of the best art of this kind in the country, this is THE event to attend.
Must-See Museum #2: Musical Instrument Museum of Phoenix
“Music is the instrument of the soul…the glue that fastens us together as a sensibility, a people or a nation.”
First off, let’s be clear: you don’t have to play a musical instrument to be enthralled with the Musical Instrument Museum of Phoenix. (Personally, I consider my greatest musical accomplishment banging out ‘Doe-a-Deer’ on a toy piano.) Still, I was genuinely fascinated with the Musical Instrument Museum – because what makes this one of the best museums in Phoenix is that the MIM is actually like 3 museums in one. Here’s what I mean:
MIM: Part Music Hall of Fame
One of the really cool parts of the Musical Instrument Museum is its Artists Gallery, which actually functions almost like a mini Music Hall of Fame, with exhibits and artefacts from some of the biggest names in musical history. I actually headed there first, and found myself fascinated with displays that featured everything from one of Johnny Cash’s signature black suit to Elvis Presley’s army uniform.
I wandered through the exhibits admiring Roy Orbison’s guitar and Stevie Ray Vaughan’s cowboy boots and fringed leather jacket, and I even got to see a couple of Grammy awards up close.
And thanks to the headsets that I received with admission, I could even rock on while watching a Maroon 5 video (without disturbing anyone else).
GENIUS IDEA: The Musical Instrument Museum gives each visitor a headset which automatically knows when you approach an exhibit, and begins to play music specific to that exhibit – it’s a brilliant way to allow each individual visitor to experience music at every display without creating a cacophony of noise inside the museum itself. Yay technology!
MIM: Part Anthropology Museum
Upstairs at the Musical Instrument Museum is a massive exhibit area that features musical instruments from all around the globe. But rather than just have the instruments on display themselves, each country is represented with cultural elements to help put the music into context.
Along with the instrument itself, there are mannequins wearing traditional garments worn by the people of the region, videos showing musicians playing the instruments, and even exhibits that show how the instruments are made.
Wandering this world of music – literally – is not just an interesting way to discover musical instruments, it’s a way to explore each country’s culture as well. I saw fado guitars from Portugal, which reminded me of singers we had seen in Lisbon. I learned that this sàung-gauk arched harp from Myanmar is one of the most prestigious in the royal court (we had seen one played on a visit to Bagan).
More than once I found myself drawn to an exhibit when my headset would play an exotic piece of music and I found myself drifting over to a display featuring Whirling Dervishes or Papua New Guinean tribal dancers.
MIM: Part Oddities Gallery
I tend to seek out the quirky or odd, and the Musical Instrument Museum of Phoenix didn’t disappoint with a pretty interesting collection of musical items that I didn’t even know existed, including room-sized ‘orchestra’ machines and organs that took the place of an entire band.
There was a giant ‘Octobasse’ from Italy (one of only 7 in existence) that the museum curator plays occasionally using a huge bow and special levers on the upper left that act as fretting devices for the strings. Since the piece is well over 10 feet tall, no musician could reach the neck with their hands.
And at the other end of the scale, there were miniature piano music boxes including a mini grand (there’s an oxymoron!) that doubled as an elegant manicure set.
There were strange automatons (figures that moved in time to music) that were a little creepy – especially this clown with a particularly disturbing shoe…check it out:
A Miniature Orchestra With a Surprise
One of the most interesting discoveries was a display case containing a miniature orchestra, designed to illustrate the composition and function of each section of the ensemble.
But on closer inspection, I realized that each miniature musician was an individual portrait of a person, not just a cookie-cutter figurine. I have no idea who may have inspired these faces, but I was fascinated by their individual likenesses!
For Those with Talent
I said at the beginning that the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix was open to all, whether they had any talent or not. But I should also mention that for those of you out there who actually ARE musically gifted, there’s an interactive hall where you can play all kinds of instruments, too. (I skipped that one in the interests of time and due to lack of talent on my part.) But Henk tells me he had a good time bashing away at the drums in there!
Phoenix Museums to Remember
There are obviously more than just these two museums in Phoenix, Arizona but for me, a museum stands out when it presents something truly special or unique. Both the Heard Museum and the Musical Instrument Museum did that and left an impression on me that I won’t soon forget – which is why I would recommend them as two of the best museums to visit in Phoenix.
Special thanks to Visit Phoenix, who hosted Henk and I on our visit to the city .