The Museum of Old and New Art
of an Exhibition
by Ed Rodley
Published on September 16, 2012, Modified on September 17, 2012
The following is a condensed version of a review, sans many, many photos, posted in three parts at http://exhibitdev.wordpress.com/2012/08/20/australia-mona-revolutionary-and-not/
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.
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 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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Post-Visit experience
MONA’s website is a bit of a tease. You can’t really get much about the MONA experience from looking at the site. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.