Tag Archives: MONA

Digital skills and staff development

Making a museum from scratch: Part Seven
After my long Australian interlude, I bet you thought I’d given up on my little thought experiment. But, no! For better or worse, it still resonates with me, and I keep encountering people and examples and issues that bear on it. So, without further ado…

Making a “born digital” organization now
The posts on making our imaginary museum thus far have focused on the organization, but as Mary Case pointed out in Part Six, a “born digital” museum (one that is organized from the ground up to take advantage of digital technologies and the Internet to carry out its mission) will need a staff that is able to come to work every day and live out the mission of a radically transparent organization, with all the uncertainty that any new workflow embodies. These people will also have to incorporate engagement and outreach activities that are now usually relegated to specialists. The who and the how of hiring and growing a staff who are able to work with these technologies, engage with the audience, and keep their skill sets fresh in the face of the day-to-day realities of getting work done is an issue that the field as a whole hasn’t made much headway in tackling. Oonagh Murphy tweeted as much not too long ago that the biggest issue in our field is a digital skills shortage in the cultural sector. This theme is amplified by survey data, too. In the New Media Consortium’s report, “The Technology Outlook for STEM+ Education 2012-2017”, which will be released next week, two of their top three challenges for STEM+ education (and museums by extension) are:

  • Digital media literacy continues its rise in importance as a key skill in every discipline and profession.
  • The demand for personalized learning is not adequately supported by current technology or practices.

Both of these I see being among the biggest challenges in the museum sector as a whole right now.  Not only is digital literacy becoming ever more important, but the capacity for museum professionals to adequately increase their literacy is woefully inadequate.

Gretchen Jennings has started a series of posts on the challenges facing museum educators in the 21st century, particularly in regards to our relationship with formal education. You’ll recognize many of the challenges she lays out,

“In order to integrate into exhibitions and other museum offerings the kind of intrinsic, joyful, and self-motivated engagement that Garcia extols, educators are going to have to create interpretive plans, become experts in current learning theory as it relates to participatory experiences, understand and use social media effectively, and gain expertise in communicating effectively the links between design and interpretation.  Educators need to devote at least as much time to honing these skills as they do on activities that support the schools.  And, as Garcia states, all of us need to become much more articulate in communicating what makes our museums unique and important in their own right in the spectrum of experiences we call education.”

Spend as much time in professional development and outreach as in supporting  formal Ed.? That’s a tall order, but it’s one I completely agree with.

One common solution I hear to the skills gap is that this is a generational problem and once the “digital natives” come into their own throughout the workplace, most of our problems will cease to exist because they “get” digital media, having grown up with it. The trouble with that narrative, of course, is it’s overly simplistic, and it serves to turn what I see as an attitudinal issue into a generational one. Even the bright young things who get all of 2012’s technology don’t necessarily have the skills for 2015’s technologies or 2020’s. Without reshaping the workplace to account for that ongoing professional development need, hiring the rising generation is just kicking the can down the road a few years.

And it fails to account for innovations currently underway. MONA is groundbreaking on several levels. The Museum of Art and History in Santa Cruz? They’re trying very different models and they’re doing it now, not someday in the future. I am reminded of Serge Bramly’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci, where he imagines the artist telling us, “Open your eyes. You have only to see things clearly to understand.” One thing this experiment has shown me is that the digital literacy issue not an insurmountable problem. It’s just a hard one.

So what are some ways our museum might differ from current ones?

Engagement is important enough to be everybody’s job
The first thing that popped into my head as I was considering how our museum might differ from traditional museums were the outreach activities that such a museum would conduct in a more evenly distributed way than we currently do. Jasper Visser wrote a brilliant post a few months back that unpacks ideas of engagement and outreach that rally speak to me. I’ll paraphrase him and recommend you read the whole post yourselves.

“There’s a subtle but important different between providing good engaging online content and actually reaching people with it.

Engagement is about designing projects that turn occasional passers-by into enthusiasts willing to go that extra mile for you. Engagement is done, usually, within the safety of your institution’s building, website or social media presence.

Outreach is about designing strategies that reach people wholly unknown to you and connect them with your institution. Outreach increases the number of people you can later engage. Outreach is done, usually, outside of the comfort zone of your institution’s building, website or social media presence.

Every successful digital strategy combines engagement and outreach activities. Outreach connects with people and invites them to come by, and engagement turns them into enthusiasts. Both require different methodologies, different tools and especially a different mindset, though.”

“If you build, they will come.” is not a successful engagement strategy, though it does seem to motivate a lot of museum online efforts. That audience focus is the crucial ingredient that takes our scholarship and authority and unites them with people. Nina Simon‘s comment on the post is illustrative, and provides field data as well.

“When my museum started creating unusual events–new forms of engagement–we knew that we were woefully lacking in the ability to do effective outreach around these projects… So for the first year, we had a rule: every new program had to have a partner organization that was strictly about outreach. We would partner with media outlets, social groups, and advocacy groups to ensure that while we were busy developing terrific programming, they were busy reaching out to their people to get them to come… It’s a good model for us as a small institution with no marketing budget to speak of.”

There’s a pretty easy way to overcome the first hurdle in doing anything new; we can build it, but will anybody come? For an institution committed to radical transparency, finding the right outreach partners should be a byproduct of just doing the day’s work, right? If you’re out there in the digital weeds, you’re much more likely to bump into opportunities.

Well before any programming can happen in the space, our engagement and outreach efforts should be an integral part of the daily workflow.  Last year, I asked a question about dealing with cognitive loads, and got four posts worth of fascinating responses from the field. In the fourth part, people I think very highly of shared their strategies for keeping abreast of developments in the field. All of them involved making learning part of the day, not a “when you have free time” activity, but a required part of the workday. And these people aren’t exactly slackers.

Keeping up to date
It seems vital that everybody be hired with the clear expectation that they are going to have to put themselves “out there” as part of working at this museum. It’s not an “additional duty”, engagement and outreach are core competencies. I see a triangle of dimensions of people’s work at our museum, there is their functional dimension (collections, web development, educator, office mgr…), their communication dimension (how are they communicating their work to the audiences) and their professional dimension (how is what they’re doing being communicated to the profession and how are they demonstrating their understanding of the current state of the art in their work). It’s a very different kind of job; one third doing, one third interacting with our communities, and one third learning/teaching. I think it could work, though. It’s not hard, it just takes commitment.

Staff would have to get used to thinking about openness, transparency and engaging with our audience right from Day One. Since this is such a radically different model than most institutions have, it would take repetition to inculcate people with these new ways of working. New staff could be introduced as they’re hired, and even provide their own short bios, as a way of personalizing the institution and preparing them for the joys of audience engagement, both physical and digital. This is not to say that every person on staff has to be an überblogger, but in the interest of radical transparency, we would subvert the current paradigm and make the default expectation be that you engage with the public unless there’s some reason for you not to. It would be nice to follow the lead of the Medical Museion in Denmark, where all staff are encouraged to contribute to the blog, and the main website is actually set up as a conversation. Their basic idea is that all staff have something of interest to someone.

Some possible examples of what this engagement might look like, courtesy of Suse Cairns:

  • A weekly blog post/video, talking about has happened/been discussed through the week? Met with the architects? Great – here are some of the issues we’re trying to grapple with when dealing with our old building. We have a space that isn’t very wifi friendly, so here are some of the solutions we’re investigating.
  • Capture the transformation of the space, and the process. Let people see the museum being built from the inside out, even as it happens.
  • Introduce people to key objects in the collection well before they can see them in the flesh, and discuss their significance, by bringing them into the colelction and by bringing the collection out in to the world.
  • Document (and make available those docs where appropriate) issues around preserving the collection as it is moved from its former home. Have you ever seen those shows about moving old houses from one side of the country to another? They are pretty interesting. No reason why moving a museum collection filled with potentially damageable stuff shouldn’t also be compelling for people to learn about/watch if the way it’s packaged is managed well.

Being transparent also becomes then an ongoing “pitch” for the institution. Its core beliefs, and the place it will fill within its communities (academic, local, professional) become evident by the actions of the staff, not just by a mission statement.

What successful engagement strategies have you encountered in your travels, or longed to see someone try?

 

Related Links:

Thinking About Museums: Making a Museum from Scratch: Part Six

http://exhibitdev.wordpress.com/2012/07/12/making-a-museum-from-scratch-part-six/

The New Media Consortium’s report, “The Technology Outlook for STEM+ Education 2012-2017”

http://www.nmc.org/

Museum Commons: Museum Educators-What Next?

http://museumcommons.blogspot.com/2012/09/museum-educators-what-next.html

The Museum of Old & New Art

http://www.mona.net.au/

The Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History
http://www.santacruzmah.org/

The Museum of the Future: Engagement and outreach
http://themuseumofthefuture.com/2012/04/09/engagement-and-outreach/

Thinking About Museums: Dealing with your cognitive load

http://exhibitdev.wordpress.com/2011/08/09/dealing-with-your-cognitive-load/

Medical Museion

http://www.museion.ku.dk/

Australia: MONA’s “The O” post-visit website

The “O” Part Two
This is the last 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. The second post covered the “O”, the customized iPod Touch-based guide given to each visitor to MONA. This post will specifically address the post-visit experience – what happens when you get home to find an email from MONA.

Logging in

What you see when you go to the MONA site.

MONA’s website is a bit of a tease. You can’t really get much about the MONA experience from looking at the site. They taken Koven Smith’s advice to heart and haven’t made another Conestoga Wagon for the 21st century. Their site has a very unusual purpose and audience. It exists to allow you to recall your visit to MONA in great detail. If you haven’t been, the site will be of little use to you. And the looping soundtrack might make you cranky. The merits and problems associated with this exclusivity are certainly worthy of discussion, but I found it a bit refreshing that they had chosen their audience, and it wasn’t the usual “everyone who might be interested in our collecting area, plus more people every year”  audience. Their website is not an analogue to the physical structure – it is something completely different. It’s a record of your relationship with MONA.

Visualizing a visit

Your visit presented to you in map form.

When you input the email address you entered when you got the device, you are confronted with this screen (as long as you’re not looking at it on an iDevice, hence the delay in me getting round to it) which presents you with a wireframe map of MONA, a list of the visits you’ve made, and the ability to toggle between looking at the works you saw on that visit, and those you didn’t.

The map
After reading Seb’s review, I was really keen to see the map. From a content creator’s standpoint, the ability to know what objects people were looking at, and to aggregate those data to make real heatmaps of where people were going in the museum sounded like Nirvana. From a visitor standpoint, I wanted to see how well it recalled my visit to me, after a period of weeks.  When we were at MONA, I was a bit taken aback to find they weren’t using the data they were collecting much. It’s still early days for them I suppose, but if I were there, I’d be crawling all over those data, just to see what I could learn from them.

From a visitor standpoint, I found it worked really well. The map is rotatable (though not zoomable) and the dots each represent an artwork you called up on the O. They are timestamped, so you can playback your visit and watch how you moved through the space. Given how lost I felt in MONA, it was a surprise to see how regular the floorplan is. Clicking on any dot, brings up the icon of the artwork and title, plus all it’s O content. I like the way you can build a mental model of your visit with pretty high fidelity. The use of images was helpful, since I seem to have trouble recalling titles from this visit. It might have something to do with there being no label in my visual memory of the artworks. I dunno… Always good to have pictures. I wish they led to bigger ones. One of my biggest disappointments in using the site was not being able to see big, clear images of the art. But more on that later.

 

Selecting an artwork you studied.

The promise of more
I loved the “Filters” and “Your tours” features of the site, because they both encourage you to think about having a relationship with MONA that lasts longer than one visit. The Filters buttons, presents you with either the list of everything you accessed during your visit (the default) or the list of everything you didn’t access. After reliving my tour in some depth, I found myself going back to see the things I didn’t look at, and thinking “Next time I’m at MONA, I want to…” The same with “Your tours”. It’s not “Your tour”. That use of the plural is the best invitation I’ve seen in a museum webiste. It invites without asking. I could easily imagine a long list of dates I’d been to MONA and imagine comparing my visits over time, what objects I kept going back to, and so on.

Brilliant thus far. But what about the content? What goodies are waiting for me?

Drilling down

I had no idea what kind of content awaited me when I clicked on an object. When I selected one, I got familiar text, and the same choices I’d had on my O. In the case of Candle Describing a Sphere, a piece that had Jen and me riveted, there was an Art Wank, and Audio. No larger image, no different content. Just what was on the O, without even the voting results to tell me how many other visitors loved or hated this piece. I tried a few other pieces and sure enough, all you can get is what you get in the museum.

The content from the O on that object.

The lack of unique content on the website is the O’s greatest lack as far as I’m concerned. Decent images is a close second. At first I was taken aback, but I understand the realities of trying to get something done in time for opening and the need to scope a project appropriately, even if it means launching without all the bells and whistles it might have. And when I look at what MONA have done with the app and the website, they’ve done a lot. I hope they do more in the next version, but what’s there is pretty impressive when you step back and compare it with what a visitor to any other museum on Earth will get at the end of their visit.

I can tell you a lot about what I looked at while in MONA, and I already feel like I need to go back. Those reasons are enough to win them some praise from the rest of us. I can’t wait to see what improvements they make on the system.

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!

Australia: MONA – revolutionary, and not

One of my primary motivations for coming to Australia was to go visit the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart. It’s been a long time since a single new museum captured so much media attention. For an overview of the founding of the museums and it’s its founder, David Walsh, try here and here. Not since the Museum of Jurassic Technology (MJT) has one institution provided so much food for thought on the museum experience, just by being different. But where MJT feels like an ironic paean to museums, MONA aims to strip away the layers of practice we have developed over the years, and focus on the central aspect of visiting an art museum – having a personal experience of art.

One of the central features of this philosophy is the complete absence of labels in the museum. No labels. None. All the interpretation, and there’s a lot of it, is carried in customized iPod Touches called “the O” which are handed out to every visitor. As a veteran of exhibition audiotours, which were considered wildly successful if the pickup rate exceeded 20%, the Holy Grail was always “universal distribution” – giving every visitor a unit. Initial reviews were surprisingly positive. Solutions had been developed for the usual technical roadblocks, like interior wayfinding, and associating visitors with the digital information of their visit. Read Nancy Proctor’s and Seb Chan’s assessment of the O for details. If you’re going to be at MCN 2012 in Seattle (you *are* going, right?), the developers of The O will be sharing what they’ve learned. So MONA was interesting both for its philosophy and its inventive, ambitious use of digital media. I had previously met Mary Lijnzaad, the MONA’s numismatics curator and head of library, in Boston and decided to take her up on her offer to come and visit.

A visit to MONA
One of the hallmarks of Walsh’s endeavor seems to be attention to detail. The visitor experience begins the moment you arrive and extends past the end of your physical visit. MONA boasts its own ferry, restaurant, brewery, winery, and luxury accommodations. MONA is a destination with a museum at the center. Following Mary’s advice, we didn’t drive, but took the MONA ferry from Hobart harbor. The ticket counter at the wharf sold tickets for both the museum and the ferry. The staff was minimal and everyone seemed to do at least two jobs. A bucket of umbrellas awaited needy visitors.

Leaving Hobart Harbor with its icebreaker and sailing ships. The bottom of Mt. Wellington can be seen on most days.

The thirty minute trip to the museum passed quickly and we soon found ourselves approaching the dock of a rust-colored slab of building at the end of a point, part fortress, part James Bond villain’s lair. We had arrived, the loudspeaker told us and at the top of the ninety-nine stairs from the dock, we would begin our visit.

Our first glimpse of MONA.

The ninenty-nine steps up

The oft-repeated marketing catchphrase is that MONA is “a subversive adult Disneyland” which like a lot of PR fluff, captures some of the emotional appeal, but not much else. MONA isn’t a theme park. It is also not a temple to secular culture the way writers like Alain de Botton have claimed museums have become. It certainly has some of those otherworldly associations; it is a destination if you approach via water ferry; the long climb up, and the descent into the hillside MONA is carved into. If MONA is any kind of temple, it’s more an oracular cave than an edifice of orthodoxy. MONA hints and whispers, it doesn’t proclaim. Nothing about a visit to MONA promotes the comforting reassurance of a traditional art museum visit. There is none of the chronological narrative of eras and cultures, movements and schools and one artist’s influence on another. All there is is you, the art, and “the O”.

Wim Delvoye’s Gothic cement mixer

Closeup

The entrance to MONA

What greeted us upon arrival was a small collection of buildings around a tennis court with strange stools scattered about on the lawn, and a life sized cement mixer truck made entirely of steel cut in elaborate Gothic patterns. In front of a low building with a funhouse mirror facade stood uniformed MONA staff directing visitors inside to get their tickets and “O” guides. MONA is free if you’re Tasmanian, so the early morning crowd was an interesting mix of a few intrepid winter tourists and locals. Upon entering, we were quickly outfitted with guides, a map, and the suggestion that we start at the bottom of the museum and work our way up – another inversion of the usual museum experience. A glass elevator and spiral staircase led down into hillside, but since we were meeting Mary in the Library, which is on the lowest level, we decided to buck the trend and start at the top. And this is what we found.

Kryptos combines cuneiform artifacts with a binary encoding of passages from the Epic of Gilgamesh

Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca, a mechanical functional analogue of the human digestive tract. It gets fed twice daily and poos at 2. The smell is quite unlike any museum odor you’ve smelled in a gallery. I’ve loved the piece from afar for a long time. It was great to see it get fed.

;

“Stool for Guard” scared the life out of me. I had the aperture cranked to get enough light, so you have to imagine turning a corner in a much darker space and seeing someone huddled in a ball against the wall, motionless. Aghh! Oh, wait. It’s art.

Adrian Spinks, MONA’s Exhibit Designer, explaining some of the details of their outdoor case. It’s hermetically sealed with a dedicated HVAC system to provide a constant microclimate year-round. An opaque blind covers the front face until a visitor approaches close enough to trigger a motion sensor, which rolls it up. It lights up at night, too. Of course.

Impressions of the experience
MONA is on one level the perfect post-modern art museum. David Walsh has decided to deconstruct the narrative of the art museum visit to it’s barest essential – looking at the art, and reacting to it emotionally. There are no labels, nothing to indicate importance, and the whole design philosophy makes it impossible to even tell what’s old and what’s new. The objects exist only in the context of the gallery and the juxtapositions between objects. Walsh doesn’t want you to come and see the highlights; he wants you to look at art and see what moves you.

MONA also explicitly wants visitors to have an opinion about the art. Friends have complained about the coarseness of boiling down the complicated relationship between viewer and art to either “love” or “hate” but I thought it served as an interesting starting point for visitors who might not feel like they knew enough to have an opinion. By making the voting so central to the experience, MONA gives all its visitors explicit permission to have an opinion. You’re allowed to love or hate (or not feel anything about) a work of art without knowing anything about it other than your personal experience of it. And for that alone, I think MONA is important.

The conceit of having no labels also worked on the whole for me. I was half ready to write it off (pun intended) as a gimmick, but I found it strangely appealing. That’s a lot to admit for someone who writes exhibit labels for a living. More than once I looked at something because I didn’t know what it was, and upon looking it up on my O, found it was something I have told myself I don’t like. The lack of information staring me in the face, combined with the powerful combinations and juxtapositions, totally worked on me. I was also free to ignore objects that didn’t appeal to me, which I would’ve felt compelled to study because of their “importance” had they been labelled. That ugly thing over there looks like a bad Picasso? Turns out it is a Picasso, and I don’t fancy it much, which is a very different way to approach than your typical museum experience.

MONA is a total immersion experience, in a way that most museums aren’t. It delights (and sometimes assaults) all the senses. In some ways, it’s more like Sleep No More, devious, theatrical, and all-consuming. And I though I can tell you which pieces struck me the most, I am still struck more by the totality of the visit. Another way it subverts the dominant paradigm is through this revolt against highlight works. One of the pieces that generated much of the initial buzz when the museum opened was Cunts … and Other Conversations, a series of casts of the vaginas of 140 women sculptures of the vulvas of 151 women, which became so popular/controversial that Walsh removed it from display. The thought of the head of a museum removing the most popular object from display because it was distracting seems mind-boggling at first, but in Walsh’s view makes perfect sense. He didn’t want people coming just to see the object everybody said you had to see, like the mobs that fill the Louvre every day waiting their turn to look at Mona Lisa and take a photo of it. Plus he is certainly a showman and the gesture of removing it from display must have been a guaranteed free round of media stories. It also reinforces the story of MONA not being like other museums.

The customer service rocked
One way that the adult Disneyland tag does apply to MONA is in the attention to customer service that it shares with the Magic Kingdom. Our interactions with MONA’s staff were uniformly pleasant, from the ferry, to the front of house staff, to the gallery attendants. I was particularly struck with how engaged the gallery attendants were. For one installation, capacity was limited to one or two visitors at a time. The woman outside had to keep people at bay long enough to allow the visitor in the installation to have their experience. Not an easy job, but she handled it with style, flagging me down as I walked obliviously past, telling me what was inside, and giving me enough information to keep me interested until the previous visitor left. And after I was done, she wanted to know what I thought of it as I was leaving. The staff who handed out and collected our “O”s made sure we’d input our email addresses so we wouldn’t miss out on the web portion of the visit.

The building was beautiful
I’m not a fan of celebrity architect buildings in general, and museums in particular. I usually feel like the objects wind up competing with the building for your attention. MONA is a very different kind of experience. I can’t remember the last time I was in a building that appreciated it’s purpose so much. And it’s a strange building. Levels are stacked haphazardly upon each other, following the contour of the hill. Stairs lead hither and yon, and it’s easy to get turned around. But everywhere you turn, there’s something to see. And the spaces vary from dark to brightly-lit, industrial to naturalistic. MONA is always varied, but never dull. And throughout the museum, one runs into reminders of the hillside you’re inside. Big vertical slabs of exposed rock appear here and there, sensual to touch, and easy on the eye.

MONA is a very singular place, and finding generalizable lessons can be challenging. One thing is clear to me, though. After 4+ hours touring the museum, I wasn’t tired, and I wasn’t ready to leave even though our ferry was departing. Do I wish all art museums were like MONA? No. Am I glad MONA exists? Yes. Most importantly, would I go back? In a heartbeat… or after 20+ hours on a plane.

Next up: The O