Virtually Present: Musical Instrument Museum relies on web content during COVID-19
By Connor Dziawura
The effects of the coronavirus have been felt by many, from the closing of movie theaters and the pause on live music to the halting or limiting of operations by businesses like gyms, restaurants and bars. Those at the Musical Instrument Museum know all too well, as the venue closed this past spring to mitigate the spread of the virus.
To remain connected with and involved in the community during the closure, the Musical Instrument Museum continued to share updates and engaging posts to its various web channels. This includes virtual tours, where curators put the spotlight on certain exhibits and instruments; DIY instrument craft tutorials; and the conversion of some kids activities to online instruction.
The latter, called the MIMkids Mini Music Makers classes and intended for kids ages 0-5 and their caregivers, have been a popular endeavor at the museum since 2013, according to Katherine Palmer, its curator of education. Described as 30 minutes of song, play and dance, the classes are intended to support child development.
As a result of COVID-19, however, MIM took those classes to Zoom on a choose-what-you-pay basis ($4, $8 or $12) to stay engaged with the community and give “families and caregivers an option for something to do during this time that we all thought would be much shorter than it has been,” Palmer explains. For more information, visit mim.org/mimkids/mini-music-makers.
“We take what is sort of a traditional early childhood music and movement format, where we make music with basic instruments, we sing songs, we dance, we move, and all of it has sort of an underpinning goal of child development,” Palmer describes.
According to Palmer, the classes are based around the idea of “world” music and have alternating themes tied to different regions. Kids can hear songs they know—like “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” “The Wheels on the Bus” and “Mulberry Bush”—put into new contexts, but they’ll also be introduced to children’s songs from other cultures.
While in some ways the classes translate well to the online format, she says, the difficulty is providing kids access to materials. Obviously they can no longer experiment with the museum’s collection of instruments, so Palmer says classes are supplemented with additional video content.
“The access to instruments has been challenging, but music making can happen anywhere and with anything, and so we just use what we have, much like people have around the world for centuries,” she says.
MIM’s YouTube and other social media channels are also hotbeds of content, from live performances and installation teasers to several instrument craftmaking videos in which Palmer explains how to easily create maracas, a musical washboard and spoons, and a Tupperware drum. This inclination toward crafting recycled instruments is a regular practice in the museum’s educational department, she says.
The museum has been sharing Virtual Museum Curator Tours, in which staff members showcase different exhibits/regions and their instruments and provide contextual information. This includes a video on Ireland, in which Rich Walter, the museum’s curator for the United States/Canada and Europe, discusses three recent acquisitions: a 1760s fiddle, a set of 20th century uilleann (“elbow”) pipes, and a custom-built contemporary tenor banjo. In another, Walter chronicles the history of the popularity of mandolins in America, along with examples. Instruments like zithers, dulcimers and bagpipes and regions like the Andes, Cuba and Brazil, among others, have also been covered by curators.
These video presentations, Walter tells, cover the type of content normally shared in person. But it’s just a little basic information to get people excited about the museum and make mental notes of what they should look out for when they return.
“There’s never a substitute for an in-person visit, of course, so I think we’re all, just like everyone everywhere, looking forward to being able to return to some normal routines,” Walter explains. “But it’s an opportunity just to take a few themes, a few topics, a couple displays occasionally, and point out some things that we find interesting and put them on that platform, which is a little bit different for us.”
Meanwhile, Palmer and Walter say staff members have been attempting to adapt to these times as best they can. According to Palmer, that includes ongoing conversation as to programming. And Walter says curators aim to ensure safety in the midst of COVID-19 and improve and continue to develop exhibits behind the scenes.
“There’s been quite a bit of energy just going on that premise that we’re still really determined to be as great a museum as we possibly can, and in our typical way of doing things that includes fresh content in the galleries to share,” Walter says.
Musical Instrument Museum
For more information about the museum, events and its reopening, which is unconfirmed as of press, visit mim.org or follow @mimphx on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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