At many museums, when you pay for admission, you receive headphones to hear a narrated tour. At the Rhythm! Discovery Center in Indianapolis, the receptionist offers a pair of earplugs. On our recent visit, my parents and I chuckled and politely refused—after all, surely the point of a museum of percussion instruments is to hear the music, right? But a minute later, as my daughter gleefully struck a floor-to-ceiling size drum, I began to wonder if we’d been mistaken.
So, you may want to take the nice girl up on the earplugs. What you definitely don’t want to do is overlook this outstanding and truly hidden gem in downtown Indy. We would have missed it ourselves, were it not for a scheduling snafu. (We had a morning to kill before an afternoon wedding and found ourselves Googling for last-minute ideas.) Trip Advisor reviews were promising, but I won’t lie; the exterior signage is terrible. We spent 15 minutes wandering aimlessly before finally asking for help. The best directions I can offer are that it’s in the atrium next to Panera. But don’t let that discourage you. Once inside, you’ll find one of the best family-friendly museums I’ve ever visited.
The Rhythm! Discovery Center opened in Indianapolis in 2007, when its parent organization, the Percussive Arts Society, relocated from Lawton, Oklahoma. It’s small—you'll be in-and-out in a couple hours—but hugely entertaining, with a stunning collection of instruments from around the world. Some are behind velvet ropes, but many more are available for playing: Asian gongs, melodic xylophones, drum kits, maracas, steel drums, orchestra cymbals, you name it. At first we tentatively tapped rhythms in a drum circle, but soon we were all rocking out in a sound booth, inhibitions shed, bopping our heads to our joyful cacophony.
I often find that interactive museums encourage kids to just rush around mindlessly pulling levers and pushing buttons, but here, signs helpfully guide visitors of all ages in how to make the most of each exhibit. Between all the banging, crashing, dinging and ringing, you learn a fair amount about science and music history. I loved tips like: “Hit it softly, then loudly, and put your hand on the surface each time. Can you feel the difference in the vibration?” In one particularly cool room, the sound waves you create flutter a silver curtain several feet away.
Given the racket we made, I can only imagine that the Rhythm! Discovery Center is a headache and a half if your visit coincides with a rowdy school group, but incredibly, on a summer Saturday, we basically had the place to ourselves. (Compare that to the weekend crowds at Indy’s fabulous but much-more-famous kid magnet.) When we rode the escalator back to the city streets, I experienced a strange sensation akin to that wonderful old Volkswagen commercial. The city seemed alive with an urban song I hadn’t noticed before: Beeping horns, swishing doors, coins in a cup and underlying it all, like a deep bass drum, the steady ka-chunk, ka-chunk of cars rolling over a loose manhole cover. A few minutes later, as we marched like ducks in a row up the 331 steps of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, my family and I added our own sound to Indy's secret beat.