Australia: MONA’s “The O” mobile guide

The “O”
This is the second post on my recent visit to the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart, Tasmania. The first post dealt with my overall impressions of this groundbreaking private museum. This post will specifically address the customized iPod Touch-based guide given to each visitor to MONA.

Perhaps separating the O from it’s setting is a mistake, but I kept switching back and forth while trying to describe my visitor experience, so I opted to give the O it’s own post. You’ll have to judge for yourself whether it was a wise idea.

Giving it away
The O comes with your admission to MONA, along with pretty sweet headphones which feature retractable cables! Why haven’t I seen these before? There goes one of my pet peeves; cable tangle. I was very impressed with the ease with which the front of house staff dispensed units, got you oriented, and sent you off. Perhaps its a sign of the changing times that handheld devices aren’t as big a deal as they once were. I think it’s also a sign of how well thought-out MONA’s visitor services are. Seb already mentioned the signage in his review of the O. I had a similar experience. Even my lovely and talented wife Jennifer, who tends to approach touch screens as though she’s poking a venomous animal got hers going on the first attempt. The whole encounter didn’t feel like it took any extra time on top of getting our tickets and orientation.

Obviously, MONA wouldn’t work without the O, so bundling the cost in the admission and making it universally distributed makes sense. I wish more institutions would take the same plunge. In my museum career, I’ve worked on my share of audio and multimedia tours for exhibitions. And I can confidently state that as a content creator, nothing is as soul-crushing as developing content that you know 80-90 percent of your potential audience will never encounter, because it’s stuck on a device you have to pay extra for on top of museum admission, and probably special exhibition admission, too. I understand the reasons behind it, but that doesn’t make it suck any less when you’re on deadline trying to make an engaging, unique experience for the visitors. Knowing that all visitors to the museum at least have access to all the content on the O resonated deeply with me. This same dynamic applies to a lot of mobile content. Give it away if you can. Charge for it only if you can clearly make your value proposition to your audience.

This will not be a technical review, since I haven’t talked to any of the technical staff about the guts of the device. Come to MCN2012 in Seattle if you want to get the skinny from the creators. I was interested in how the device shaped my visit, and focused on that. For other reviews, check out Nancy Proctor’s and Seb Chan’s.

Having to work to get information changed the way I interacted
I have a confession to make. Most art museum object labels make me nuts. I think it’s telling that they are referred to in in the field as “tombstone” labels, because I think for many visitors, tombstone labels are where their interest in an object goes to die. Is the general public interested in the accession number? Does everyone really have to know whose bequest funded the purchase of every single piece in the entire museum? And nothing else? Aiya! Don’t get me wrong, I use accession numbers all the time in my work, and I take a certain geeky pleasure in parsing a well-formed one. I also owe my livelihood to funders and am endlessly grateful to them for their philanthropy. I just think that even a one sentence description of an object would be more useful to more visitors than all the accession # and donor/funder credits on Earth. So I was predisposed to think the O might be another way worth considering.

Once in the museum and confronted with a gallery full of objects, I found myself doing the “Where should I go?” visual scan, and without the comfort of directional signage and labels it was hard to get started. As a learner, I guess am one of those “advanced organizer” types. I want to have a map in front of me, and be able to see where I am and where I can go. Not having those cues (I did have a map in my pocket) was a bit unsettling. I wanted to be told “Start here!” In the end, I chose an Egyptian relief and went up to it and started looking at it. In hindsight, it was a “safe” choice for me, since I’ve been to Egypt, done Egyptian exhibitions before and felt able to look at the object cold without feeling the way I often feel when looking at contemporary art – confused and unsure.

I used my O to find out what the object was, tried out the summary and the “curator’s wank”, which is what the longer descriptive text are called. I had some trouble with the title, especially after it seemed clear that many of them were written by women, but the actually wanks themselves were pretty straight-up, curatorial texts by and large. About the only major difference I found was that they tended to have more personality to them and were full of personal references that gave me sense of the MONA curators that I don’t usually get at other art museums. Otherwise, they weren’t crazy and way out. That was a bit of a shocker.

Every object has a Love and a Hate button and I was eager to see what this led to, so I loved my stele, whereupon I was told that X other visitors had loved it, too. And that was it. No infographics, or breakdowns on who else in the room loved that object. Just an acknowledgment and a fact. I was a bit surprised, even having read the reviews. I guess I was expecting the Love/Hate act to be more … declarative? … public? I dunno. As I progressed through the museum, though, I found myself asking the question of an object “Do I love this? Do I hate this? How does this object make me feel?” That is not the way I usually behave in an art museum, and it felt like a useful scaffold to me as an art learner to have to go through that exercise. By the end of the visit, though, I know I was loving and hating things because I wanted to remember them, and having only those two choices was limiting to me. I really, really, really wanted a “This object doesn’t speak to me” or “Meh.” button. Maybe in v2?

As I tried other objects and found other content on the O, I listened to audio interviews with artists. Some were interesting and very raw, some of them waffled around and could’ve done with some tighter editing and interviewing. About the only content that surprised me on the O were the songs that were selected to accompany some pieces, including some that were commissioned to be “about” pieces in the collection. I loved the inclusion of poetry that somebody (the curators? Walsh?) thought appropriate. The long and the short of it, though, was that the O didn’t really usurp my experience of looking at the art, which is always the danger with interpretive media. If the interpretation is more engaging than the object, then you wind up with a room full of people looking down at their screens instead of looking around.

Perhaps the most defining moment of our visit came when we got to the entrance of the current special exhibition, “Theatre of the World”. Having dutifully used her O throughout the visit, Jennifer proudly and loudly announced she was turning hers off and not going to use it. She had gotten what the O could provide her, tried it enough, and was ready to fly solo. Being a Star Wars guy, I of course had a momentary image of “Luke, you’ve switched off your targeting computer! What’s wrong?” “Nothing. I’m alright.” She was going in to see what was there, and nothing else. That would be impossible in any other art museum on Earth because the labels would be there, calling out to be read. Being able to choose the level of interpretation she wanted led her to choose none. And that was her favorite part of her visit.

I also found myself using the device less and less frequently as I went along, and “loving” and “hating” things less often as I grew accustomed to what awaited me. I could have the internal conversation without the external act of choosing. I even found myself asking objects, “Do I like you enough to want to bother to find out more?” and deciding the answer was no fairly often. And that freedom to choose what I wanted to engage with and how deeply I wanted to engage with it had everything to do with the information residing in the O and not on the wall. That’s what a successful scaffold is supposed to do, isn’t it? Be useful until you don’t need it and then get out of the way.

It’s not a wayfinding aid
The O didn’t really help me find my way around MONA. This is not a surprise since MONA’s not really built to be navigable in the traditional “Where’s the Impressionists gallery” sense. Even though the device has a pretty good sense of where you are in the building, thanks to a proprietary wayfinding system, the O instead presents you with a thumbnail list of the works that are within a certain radius of your current location. It doesn’t seem to update it’s location on the fly. There’s a big “What’s Nearby?” button on screen. Pressing that pulls up images of nearby works. The system worked remarkably well. Given the nature of the building with its solid stone walls, I can only imagine what kind of brute force method was used to provide (nearly) blanket coverage of the museum. I managed to get my O lost a couple of times, but each time I moved into an adjacent space, the device managed to reorient itself. Really impressive. I was expecting most of my irritation with the device to revolve around location issues, and that wasn’t the case.

My wife and I quickly wound up going on separate paths, partly because I was stopping to photograph everything in sight, but at least partly because the lack of labels stopped us from doing the art museum waltz -step over to the object, step up to read the label, step back again, and step to the left to the next object. At least once, I stumbled upon an artwork I wanted Jennifer to see and had to go find her and walk her over to the work in question, because it would’ve been impossible to describe how to get there. I can imagine that would really freak out some people, but it didn’t really bother us. MONA is a place in which to get lost. You get unlost when you come out and that’s the important thing.

Revolutionary, and not
A lot of ink and electrons have already been spilled on how “edgy” MONA is, both in terms of its collections and its approach to interpretation. And it is, but not in the way you might think. A lot of the art is challenging, but so is a lot of contemporary art. No surprise there. The lack of wall labels is certainly a seismic shift in accepted practice, but one people have talked about forever. The O is revolutionary, but not for the reasons I thought it would be. My biggest surprise was how unsurprised I was by the content on the O. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I didn’t find it. I found an intriguing collection of mostly texts, many of which wouldn’t seem at all out of place in an art museum or gallery setting. I found an explicit scheme for getting visitors to think about art in emotional terms, and to feel that their personal experience of the art was the most important thing. But what was most revolutionary is not what’s on the device, or how people use the device, but what the absence makes possible. I can think of all sorts of ways I’d want to improve the O if given the chance, but they are all either performance improvements, or additions to the online experience. The O is at heart a way to augment the experience of what you’re looking at in MONA. And on that score, it works. I wanted more, like I always do after any mobile interpretation, and I wanted more different kinds of content. But I think the basic premise is sound, and I look forward to seeing how MONA grows the product and the platform.

Next up: Sydney and more Drinking About Museums!

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5 responses to “Australia: MONA’s “The O” mobile guide

  1. As I read your conclusions, particularly the parts about how much more you wish the O had, I kept feeling reminded of Raymond Loewy’s MAYA (Most Advanced Yet Acceptable) principle: “The adult public’s taste is not necessarily ready to accept the logical solutions to their requirements if the solution implies too vast a departure from what they have been conditioned into accepting as the norm.” It’s one of the most frustrating things about being an early-adopter or designer of new tech and new experiences, because you always feel like the future could be so much brighter if only you could get people to accept the cool stuff we already have.

    Maybe blanking the slate, removing the wall labels and allowing people to unplug from curatorial interpretation, is the best way to adapt people to the new experiences that are yet to come. Perhaps we have to reduce the “normal” experiences of our audience to their most distilled essence first before we can additively alter how they access those experiences, or else we risk simply adding noise.

  2. I vote for the “Meh.” button. I needed one of those.

  3. Pingback: Australia: MONA’s “The O” post-visit website | Thinking about museums

  4. Pingback: Le Museum of Old and New Art (Mona) réinvente l’expérience muséale

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