Catholic Phoenix


Mortification at the Musical Instrument Museum

The introductory gallery at the MIM in far-north Phoenix had been quite inspiring.  While I hadn’t been looking forward to the trip, the initial exhibit reminded me of the influential role that music has played in my life, first during my teenage years, later in my reversion to the Catholic Church, and currently in my love of worship music.
The museum is organized first by continent, and then by country.  As we entered the European gallery, I did not expect to see the first country to catch my eye: on the left was a display marked “Vatican City.”  I was filled with excitement at the upcoming possibilities of hearing traditional Catholic hymns, music created for the Mass by classical composers, the booming of pipe organs with notes lifted toward Heaven, haunting Gregorian chant, and the magnificent sound of bells in their towers.  I decided to mortify myself just a little bit by starting on the right side of the room.
Each country display has an printed text describing the exhibit along with a TV screen showing more detail about the people and music of that culture, with wirelessly-transmitted audio examples, which can only be heard on the museum visitor's personal headphone system when in close proximity to the particular exhibit. Since the beginning of the tour my headphones had not been working well, so when I arrived at the Vatican City display and heard nothing, I walked in circles in front of it, trying to capture the audio by positioning my head just right.  When I had no success picking up the recording, I decided to settle for watching the video without sound.  I searched the rather small exhibit for the screen, certain that I would see cathedrals and choirs.  It took at least a minute for it to sink in.  There was no screen. The Vatican City exhibit had no audio and no video.
As disappointment took hold, I comforted myself that the MIM had at least chosen to create a Vatican City exhibit.  They could have omitted it entirely, and that probably could be seen as a reasonable decision given the size of its population.  So I turned my attention to the artifacts and written portion of the display.  Here is what I saw: 

As my outrage bubbled to the surface, I imagined what people already less than enamored with the Church would be thinking at this point.  “Those Catholics and their rules!  They even regulate bells!”  “Ha!  Flying Easter eggs… How typically ridiculous is that?”  “Those Catholics have interfered with music throughout history!”  To the best of my recollection of the other exhibits, the Catholics have the only instruments respectfully referred to as “noisemakers.”
Sometimes I have trouble letting go of insults, particularly involving my beloved Church.  OK, pretty much all of the time.   So as I walked through the rest of the museum with a chip on my shoulder, I couldn’t resist snapping this photo:


One of Scooby Doo’s supporting characters had her own screen.  She had audio too.  Admittedly, the display wasn’t really about the animated show itself but rather a discussion of player pianos.  I’m sure that player pianos have contributed at least as much to music history as the Catholic Church, right?
This treatment of the Church by the Musical Instrument Museum reminded me of the continued and increasing disrespect for Christianity in our modern culture.  And it is my belief that it is becoming dangerous.  Father Lankeit at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral recently published an article in his parish bulletin discussing the hostility of the secular media toward Christians.  He included headlines from 15 articles displaying such bias from two weeks in September 2011 alone.  His article from the October 2, 2011 bulletin can be found on the cathedral website, (Click as follows:  KNOW/Publications/Weekly Bulletins/October 2, 2011)
I would like to urge all Catholics to take notice of the portrayals of our Church being offered to the public at large.  We try to combat negative depictions when they occur in obviously offensive movies and TV shows, but even more dangerous assaults upon the history of the Faith are also being committed using subtle and seemingly high-minded means such as museum displays.  The MIM's "Vatican City" exhibit is a startling example of selective and malicious misrepresentation: it’s not false that Catholics change up the bells during Lent, and there probably was some folklore related to flying Easter eggs.  But to represent those details as the Church’s sole contribution to music history?  That’s just plain deceptive.
Sharon Rayner is a Catholic wife and mother living in Phoenix.  This piece originally appeared on her own blog, In Joyful Hope.

9 comments | Add one of your own.

  1. Peter Bloch

    I have been waiting to go to the MIM, mostly because I haven’t heard anything particularly great about it. Is the MIM worth the trip, despite the Vatican City exhibit? The church’s musical history is incredibly rich; this is really more of an embarrassment for the MIM than an attack on the church. It is ignorant at best and petty at worst.


    1. Sharon

      The MIM is especially worth visiting if you have children. They have a large room where kids (and adults, I guess) can enthusiastically play many different types of instruments without inhibition. My daughters, ages 9 and 6, spent more than an hour enjoying the opportunity to strum guitars, pound drums, strike a gong, pick at harp strings, and tap on xylophone keys. They would have stayed longer. Smiles abounded.

      As for general interest, its exhibits are quite varied such that most people would likely find some portion of the museum appealing. They do have a gallery of more modern musicians, which includes several of Elvis’ costumes. They also have a case with an air guitar.


    2. Sharon

      I disagree that at worst it’s only petty. I think it is an example of how easily the history of Catholic contributions to world culture can be re-written using any medium. Although this example relates to the fine arts, the omission of Catholic achievements in any arena, if unopposed, places Catholics one step closer to marginalization. That the exhibit actually replaces Catholic achievements with outright ridicule makes it even more ominous. The recent HHS legal assault on our long-held right to practice our religion free of government interference is a logical progression from just this kind of portrayal using narrow, negative (and false) stereotypes.


  2. Leila

    I love this article, Sharon. Sad to read, but I’m glad you put it out there! Maybe some MIM folks will realize how ridiculous their Vatican City exhibit really is.


  3. kelly

    I’m a former MIM employee, and I have to disagree with your interpretation. Coming from a “behind the scenes” perspective, the reason that Vatican city has such a paltry representation is largely because, as a nation, it hasn’t really produced many actual instruments of note. (Excuse the pun.) Yes, the Vatican is the center of Catholicism… but most of Catholicism’s musical traditions were developed in other countries, such as Poland, Spain, Italy proper, Germany, etc. (Remember, too, it was only established in 1929!)

    If you look at the rest of the European section, and sections related to other Christian cultures, there is usually a lot of mention of how certain musical instruments/kinds of music relate to religious holidays and traditions. The organ section certainly goes into depth about churches and musical traditions; Belgium talks about the role of church bells and sense of time; you’ll find mention of Lent and Christmas and Easter and pilgrimages throughout Europe, Latin America, and parts of Africa. Tour guides are trained to mention how religious traditions inform musical traditions throughout the world.

    While the choice of the bell tradition is kind of quirky, I’d be willing to bet that the curators chose to include it because it was interesting, and reveals some things about folk culture in Catholic countries– not because they see the Catholic Church itself as superstitious. Speaking as someone who knows a lot of people involved in European musicology/theory/composition, I can assure you that there isn’t a grand secularist conspiracy against Catholic musical traditions. People go into that field because they love studying the music, culture, and liturgical traditions of Catholicism and want to preserve them, not because they want to tear them down.


    1. Sharon

      I will certainly go again and evaluate the mention of Christianity in other sections of the museum, but I still believe that the use of loaded words such as “enacted regulation”, “throughout history” (really? since the beginning of time?), and “noisemakers” reflects an anti-Catholic sentiment on behalf of that particular exhibit’s creator. The concept that as a nation Vatican City didn’t contribute much to music history argues for its exclusion from the museum altogether but certainly doesn’t justify what was chosen for inclusion.
      While I wandered through the rest of the museum, I considered that one explanation for the exclusion of Gregorian chant could be that voices are not considered musical instruments. But then I saw the exhibit on Micronesian singing. I’m hoping that our webmaster can add the photo I snapped, but for now I’ll just add the text at the top of the placard:
      “Long suppressed by Christian missionaries and colonial administrators, Micronesian songs and dances, with their sparse but pronounced percussive accompaniment, have reemerged–a testament to the vitality of local tradition. Singing is central to music across the island region.”
      In addition to demonstrating that the museum does consider the human voice to be a musical instrument, as you can see the Micronesian exhibit also includes a somewhat unnecessary detail depicting Christians as suppressors.
      I’d like to believe that what the museum selected for inclusion in the Vatican City exhibit does not reflect a concerted effort to belittle the Church, but the petty swipe at Christians above does nothing to reinforce that conclusion.
      I will return to the museum and consider other relevant sections that I might have missed while shepherding my children through the exhibits. Perhaps I’ll be able to locate an exhibit on Gregorian chant in another portion of the museum.


  4. Nicaela

    Thank you for this article, Sharon. Perhaps what is most dangerous about these suggestions about Catholic “suppression” is their very subtlety.

    On another note, you mention that the museum is good for children. How about very young children (3 yrs to be specific)? I’ve been thinking of taking my daughter (she loved the art museum) but didn’t know if it would be appropriate.

    A Blessed Lent to you!


    1. Sharon

      Children 5 and under are free, so if you can afford the $15 adult admission price, I think your daughter would enjoy spending a few hours there. The instrument room is set up with the instruments low enough for small children to access and I think she would love the sounds she could produce from them on her own, as well as the physicality of banging and strumming. There are other parts of the museum she might also engage with. The room with exhibits that featured more modern musicians might have music that would be familiar to her too. You might also want to check out their website to see if there are any special events that would be appropriate for young children.

      Thanks for asking, and God bless.


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