I had been hoping to visit MONA (Museum of Old and New Art) for quite some time, so I was pleased to finally make there last week. I had heard a lot about MONA and their mobile experience ‘The O’ at various Museum conferences and gatherings, so I had quite high expectations. I’m pleased to say I wasn’t disappointed and it lived up to the hype. A visit to MONA is quite a powerful experience.
Photography is allowed inside the museum, but publication on websites is not allowed without permission. So I will share only images of the entrance.
I arrived at MONA by car, rather than ferry. When you enter MONA you travel to the lowest level by a cylindrical lift or spiral stairs that wind around the lift. You emerge into a cavernous hall with towering stone walls. This entrance really set the scene for the visit. It feels like you are delving into something deep, unknown, confronting and surprising.
We were given our O device – an iPod touch with a single app loaded – and a brief explanation on how to use it, then sent on our way. There was no map on the device, no guide, no panels and no labels. The O finds your location and gives you a list of art works in the vicinity. Finding the artworks listed is not always easy as there are multiple levels and various interconnected rooms that means you might be physically near an artwork, but the path to reach it turns out to be difficult to find.
The O does not always provide an explanation on the piece, beyond a picture, the artists name and date of creation. The main feature is ‘Love’ or ‘Hate’ button where you input your reaction to the piece. If you select ‘Love’ or ‘Hate’ it will then provide you some sort of statistic on how you relate to the reactions of other visitors, such as: ‘16% of visitors had similar warm fuzzy feelings.’
Each time you select an artwork from the list you are also given some kind of other interpretive media. It could be an interview with the artist, a review, ‘art wank’, sound accompaniment or other multimedia feature to compliment what you are viewing.
When you select an artwork it is also logged as ‘viewed’, then at the end of your visit you could enter your email address and have your tour emailed to you. The email gives you a link to view your tour – an interactive map and list of all the artworks you viewed (by selecting the artwork on your O), your path through the museum, what you loved or hated and the artworks you missed. You can then explore the additional content that accompanied each piece on your computer. This is a great feature as reading/viewing all that content onsite would not, I think, be possible in one day. The collation of information for each visitor also means MONA gets some pretty handy data about how people are using their museum.
There is a lot that has been said about the O – that it’s innovative and ingenious, it frees visitors to explore in their own way, it challenges visitors by forcing them to only register polar views… and more. I was impressed by the device and I did like that there were no labels and no set path. The saved tour feature was great. I wasn’t completely sold on the Love/Hate vote system, it felt a bit too pushy for me, deliberately controversial. The further I moved through the museum the less I voted. I ‘hated’ a few things just because I felt I should hate something, rather than actually having particularly strong feelings for it. But I certainly appreciated the encouragement to be an active rather than passive art viewer.
The additional interpretive information was a bit hit and miss for me. Some things were really fascinating and complimentary, but I found many of the reviews/commentaries did not capture me. I think this was partly because there was often a lot of text that was small and hard to read on the screen. I liked the short and sharp ‘ideas’ section some pieces had though.
Certainly I felt the O enriched my visit. It provided a more interesting and personal experience than traditional wall panels and labels. I see great value in allowing visitors to save the tour and explore more on their return home. I hope the O keeps expanding though, as I think there are more opportunities, particularly with newer programs such as those using augmented reality. I think it would be great to see an art installation within the museum that captures the data, responses, feedback etc of the visitors.
The Visitor Experience
Moving aside from the O and it’s role in the visitor experience, I want to mention a few things about the physical and emotional side of the visit. To be honest, I don’t normally seek out modern art experiences. I appreciate artistic skill and the role modern art plays in challenging our perceptions and beliefs. I love the way some pieces offer clever commentary on contemporary life. But generally, I find more enjoyment and engagement from social history and science museums.
I found MONA to be exceptional as an art museum experience. I found it challenged me personally and affected me emotionally in a way no other art museum has. It doesn’t have the most impressive artworks, nor the most beautiful spaces (so far, for me, those honours go to the MET in New York).
What drew me in was the vault-like layout and the exploration-style visit. It was also the unknown. You didn’t know what would be around the next corner or down the next tunnel. What would you find as you entered a darkened hallway into a small enclosed room? I felt almost like a child again – afraid of the dark spaces, yet too curious and excited to walk past. Facing the unknown made me feel invigorated too.
I didn’t actually like (or ‘love’) a great number of artworks. But I really enjoyed the experience. I liked that it wasn’t in themed sections. The unlabelled ancient antiquities stood side by side with modern pieces design to provoke and confront their viewers. There was the tiny – ancient coins artistically displayed and tiny sculptures in glass vaults. And there were the giants – artworks that took up entire rooms.
One particular installation I remember was called Kryptos. It was a dark, maze like room with only strip lighting on the floor and illuminated binary numbers around the wall. David Walsh (the owner of MONA) who commissioned the piece explains that the digits are an encoding of a translation of the very old Mesopotamian text, ‘The Epic of Gilgamesh’. I almost didn’t go in (in everyday life I don’t normally choose to walk into dark enclosed spaces) but then my curiosity pushed me through the doorway. I was the only one inside the exhibit. I followed the maze through to a Alice in Wonderland style doorway about 3 ft high. I leaned through and vast space above me made me look up. Then I almost jumped out of my skin when I caught my reflection in the mirror that was giving the illusion of space. I ‘loved’ that artwork. Purely because of the personal experience I had.
To me Kryptos summed up my experience of MONA. It challenged me to explore things I wouldn’t normally look at, it pushed me past my everyday aversions and it allowed me to have an intensely personal experience. The O further made the experience less communal and more insular, in a positive and thoroughly engaging way.
MONA is a welcome addition to the Australian Museum scene. Although it oozes arrogance, it also has a healthy dose of genius and class. It is challenging how we present our museums to visitors and for that I am very grateful.