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.
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.
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”.
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.
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