March 19, 2010 / 12:27 PM / 9 years ago

Brussels instrument museum rich in sounds of music

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Don’t go to the Brussels Museum of Musical Instruments — affectionately known as the MIM — unless you’re prepared for constant surprises.

This isn’t a typical Saturday afternoon stroll through a century of Impressionist art.

The building, distinctive in its art nouveau style and instantly visible in the Place Royale of the EU capital, opened its doors in the late 19th century in a previous life as a department store.

It houses over 7,000 musical instruments from across the globe and makes use of headphones for self-guided tours that automatically emit the music of the instruments on display.

There’s something simplistically ingenious about using more than just your eyes in a museum.

The exhibits themselves, however, are so visually appealing in their lighting, placement and history that you sometimes forget about the large circled numbers on the floor guiding headphone users. That can lead to sudden and unexpected bursts of string quartet music or the skirl of Scottish bagpipes.

Gauging where the headphone signal ends is the trick here — otherwise an earful of static is in order. The headphones emit a high-pitched whistle between tracks, with the number of whistles indicating the number track.

Each room is dimly lit with the instruments bathed in spotlights, accompanied by signs and diagrams for the more complicated and obscure instruments.

Sometimes a brief social history of the instruments and pictures of related musicians are included. The signs are only in French and Dutch, though most musical terms translate into English easily.

Four of the MIM’s 10 floors house beautiful, expansive exhibits that take 20 to 30 minutes each to wander through.

The wood-floored building with its wide spiral staircase leads you past a museum shop, a library that houses thousands of readable and listenable materials, a concert hall and a 10th-floor restaurant with a spectacular panoramic view.

One floor below the lobby, you’ll find a room primarily for the MIM’s younger visitors that houses mechanical instruments and a sound laboratory.

Starting on the fourth floor and making your way down to the second and first floor exhibits allows you to see how intertwined the world’s instrumental music cultures really are.

The “Keyboards & Strings” room first shows you the evolution of such instruments as the piano, the violin and the guitar.

Don’t miss seeing the angelic-looking semi-circle of harps with their gilded frames and highly intricate carvings — all while listening to rather celestial music.

Look out for the violinmaker’s workshop preserved from the 17th century behind glass, complete with an exhibit displaying the creation of a violin from a block of wood.

The second floor’s “Western Art Music” room provides a context, showing you the people who might have brought you the music still emanating from your headphones.

You’re greeted with brassy bassoon and trumpet pieces from the 18th century as you take in a huge hanging tapestry and various oils-on-canvases displayed behind the instruments, reminding you that these instruments themselves — and not just the sounds they produce — are also art.

Don’t miss the case of trumpets tucked into a back corner, some of which have convoluted twists making them seem as though they had fallen victim to a vindictive musician.

Finally, the first floor houses some of the world’s traditional instruments from beyond the western world’s borders.

Strident notes sound from India’s wailing ladak horn as you walk in the door, followed by a Japanese shamisen and other string instruments.

Every instrument in the exhibit is worth close examination, with artifacts — including clothing and instruments accessories

— from China, Rwanda, Borneo, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, the Ivory Coast, Russia and Bulgaria.

Don’t miss the exhibition on Bohemian instruments, with a prominent display of a red-and-white rhinestone-studded accordion as its centerpiece.

Editing by Paul Casciato

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