Down the rabbit hole at MONA & Melbourne Museum: Part 1

Part 1: MONA & The O mobile experience

I’m travelling back in time for a moment, to 2012, when I first visited Tasmania’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) – then fairly new.

MONA, Hobart, Tasmania, 2011. Photograph by Rob Taylor

MONA, Hobart, Tasmania, 2011. Photograph by Rob Taylor (CC BY 2.0)

MONA was the place that really sparked my interest in the potential, pitfalls, and parameters of multimedia mobile storytelling in museums. It also got me pondering how far we could branch out beyond safe, middle-of-the-road interpretation.

I’m late! I’m late!

Lots of commentators have written about MONA, so why am I adding my two cents now?

Melbourne Museum’s Love & Sorrow Storyteller app reignited my original intention to write about MONA. Its mobile offering – part of its WWI centenary exhibition – offers an interesting comparison, and both experiences raise considerations for museums embarking on mobile developments. They also provide a context for my explorations in the US.

I’ll split my thoughts across two posts. But first, some brief scene setting.

Skip to 3 surprises if you’ve experienced MONA in person
Go to Part 2: Melbourne Museum’s Storyteller app if you’ve read enough about MONA

MONA: Shaking up the art establishment

Corridor, MONA, 2012

MONA, 2012

Mad Hatter, by John Tenniel

Mad Hatter, by John Tenniel, via Wikimedia Commons

MONA is a dungeon-like complex built deep in a hill in an industrial suburb of Hobart. The brainchild of multi-millionaire mathematician/gambler David Walsh – a man fascinated by sex and death, whose private art collection embodies that obsession. The Mad Hatter of the art world, some might say. A man who solves the financial woes of his half-finished museum by betting on the Melbourne Cup and winning $16 million in one outing. A man who decides to ditch museum labels altogether. Who wouldn’t be intrigued?

MONA, working with Art Processors (which Walsh founded – an enormously talented bunch), is the first museum in the world to go fully mobile. Bold. But …

  • Will visitors be fixated on screens rather than art?
  • With earphones on, will they be even more isolated from the world around them?
  • Will the mobile device even work?

O! The MONA experience

Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, 2011. Photograph by Rob Taylor

MONA, Hobart, Tasmania, 2011. Photograph by Rob Taylor (CC BY 2.0)

A corridor lined with velvet curtains, MONA, 2012

A corridor lined with velvet curtains, MONA, 2012

Clearly, great thought has gone into making MONA an integrated, immersive, almost theatrical experience – every aspect contributes to the effect, from boat ride to architecture to food to post-visit experience.

Being lost is a key element, as many have noted. No sooner have I stepped off the catamaran and ascended the almost 100 stairs to MONA’s entrance and it’s time to descend again. A spiral staircase leads me down. And down. Welcome to Wonderland. A host at the bottom gives me a quick demo of The O – the iPod Touch device (it’s included in the entry fee) – and lets me loose.

Picture ornate furniture in the entrance hall. A cellist. Dimly lit, narrow hallways. Blood-red velvet curtains. Few if any directions. The O is my only guide.

Here’s a trampoline with bells on.

Trampoline, MONA, 2012

MONA, 2012

Over there, an undulating room covered in fluffy pink fabric.

Fluffy room, MONA, 2012

MONA, 2012

Alongside, a cacophony of TVs, all with different footage.

Multi-television exhibit, MONA, 2012

MONA, 2012

image001Art wank, madam? Love it or hate it

As I move around MONA, a list of nearby works with thumbnails automatically pops up on my mobile screen. I select what strikes my fancy and choose from four interpretive options:

  • Ideas: Interesting quotes, provocative conversation starters.
  • Art Wank: Need I say more? (In this case, though, it’s a bit more accessible than the obtuse interpretation that characterises many art museums, though it still suffers from a lack of paragraphing and excessive length.)
  • Gonzo: Musings from Walsh or one of his circle, with intriguing if tenuous links to the art.
  • Media: Mostly interviews with artists, some music.

I’m immediately struck by Walsh’s audacity, and envious of MONA’s freedom. Here’s a man who can do, and will do, whatever he wants, and he’s backing the team around him to do the same. Organisations with a public mandate can learn from that, but we’ll never be in the same position.

I can either love or hate works – such brutal simplicity. (Only recently have other museums grown up and decided that people hating their art might not be such a threat after all.) Too simple? Some might say so, but personal opinion is still too often left out of art interpretation, as if it didn’t matter at all. And opinions (no matter how ill-formed) are often the precursor to fascinating conversations.

I marvel. I rage. I question. I disagree. I fall in love.

A take-home experience

Supplying my email address allows me to revisit the works I’ve viewed from home – the physical and virtual worlds connect. I can’t actually access MONA’s collection until I’ve visited. In the public sector, we obviously wouldn’t opt for this approach, but OK, this is a private museum wanting to encourage visitation: because it’s integral to the experience, and because it means money.

The O retrieved tour, 2012

The O retrieved tour, 2012

I can also see the path I took around the museum – that squiggly line at the top. As a visitor, I don’t particularly care about that, but as a museum practitioner, I’m excited by the potential to better understand audience behaviour.

Interestingly, MONA isn’t focusing too much on that data (most viewed, duration viewed, most loved, most hated, etc). As Nic Whyte of Art Processors puts it: ‘If you only cater to what the stats tell you, you end up with a very vanilla experience.’ Masterpieces comes from another place.

3 surprises

Again, many commentators have discussed what works (and doesn’t work) about The O, so I’ll stick with the biggest surprises for me.

1. People are looking at the art … because they want to
Yes, they look at their screens (especially initially), but then they look up – closely. Some raise the device to move between text interpretation and art more seamlessly. I follow suit.

Mostly, though, I choose the audio. I also notice that I choose works based on gut instinct. I’m all for demystifying art, but could labels change the choices visitors make in less useful ways?

Ed Rodley noted the same in his blog: ‘I was … free to ignore objects that didn’t appeal to me, which I would have felt compelled to study because of their “importance” had they been labelled.’

Visitors at MONA, Tasmania, 2012

Visitors at MONA, 2012

2. People are talking to each other
I grab my colleague, Lynette: ‘Have you listened to this interview?’ or ‘Forget that wank.’ When I look around, others are doing the same. Despite the seemingly antisocial context, people are socialising.

Here’s my hunch. A) The provocative content is perfect gossip fodder, and you get a kick from unearthing some gem. B) The fact that the entire experience is ‘individual’ – everything is on The O – makes us want to share it. The ubiquity may even be a crucial component.

For less pervasive mobile interpretation, would we see this social connection? I’m not so sure. Also, I’d love to have experienced The O with my kids – the content is ripe for fascinating family conversations, but would I have felt disconnected from their experiences?

Visitors chatting at MONA, 2012

Visitors chatting at MONA, 2012

3. The device works … mostly
Actually, mine freezes at one point, but the hosts quickly replace it. Once, I find myself stuck on the Red Queen Tour – a more limited selection of works – but find my way out eventually. Mostly, the content appears when it’s meant to.

In the cafe, I survey (not at all scientifically) three older couples – people who look like my technologically challenged Mum and Dad. They’re all happy with their experience, thanks to a simple interface, clear instructions, and useful support from the hosts.

Upshot of The O

So what’s the upshot? The O works. Why?

  • It suits the art, the collector (a strong presence throughout), and the context.
  • It’s an integral part of the experience – the only way in.
  • It lets the art speak for itself and simultaneously offers multiple avenues into a new appreciation.
  • It prioritises emotional connection with art and diverse responses, through the silence of the walls and David Walsh’s Gonzo comments. His mental meanderings count; therefore ours do too.
  • It’s an art work in its own right. I’ve long thought museum practitioners should behave more like artists than lecturers, and MONA illustrates that perfectly.
Ping pong table at MONA, 2012

Ping pong at MONA, 2012

As Seb Chan noted in his blog, content rather than technology really maketh the O. Like Seb, I particularly like the lo-fi audio interviews. I can hear a kettle going off in the background, cups clinking. I’m there with the artist. In a world now accustomed to spontaneous, mobile video and audio footage, we need to ask ourselves when hi-fi is important and when it gets in the way. What sort of experience and emotional impact are we looking for – intimacy or awe? Still, that doesn’t do away with the need for a good edit. 1:30 max please!

Finally, it works because it works – technically I mean.

The numbers speak for themselves too: In 2014, MONA was the second most visited Tasmanian attraction according to Tourism Tasmania. 96% of visitors use The O.

3 questions for the rest of us

So, MONA’s a success, but how much of it is transferrable? Would it be mad to consider fully mobile interpretation beyond art, for instance? Quite possibly.

1. How would we retain the story with fully mobile interpretation?
With art, people don’t have to ‘get’ the overall story; to get anything in fact. To a large extent, art works are stories in themselves, with immediate impact. But in history and science shows (Te Papa covers all three), the story across objects is arguably more important. Without physical labels to signal key messages and connections, how would we retain that story when we wanted to? Only via a linear mobile tour or one-way spatial design?

2. Add a multimedia mobile layer on top of a rich on-floor exhibition – mad?
How would we prevent the mobile experience from competing with everything else if it extended beyond the usual audio layer? And what would the criteria be for physical versus mobile content? More importantly, would our visitors want this layer?

3. What about BYOD – Bring Your Own Device?
To what extent could we translate the MONA concept for museums unable to offer devices, or for visitors wanting to use their own? (I believe MONA’s introducing BYOD soon.)

Love and Sorrow exhibition entrance, Melbourne Museum, 2015

Love and Sorrow exhibition entrance, Melbourne Museum, 2015

Then, in 2015, Melbourne Museum launches their Love & Sorrow exhibition. They’ve taken the plunge and integrated a mobile experience into a history show – a great opportunity to test questions 2 and 3 above. Grab an Anzac biscuit and join me in Melbourne.

Read Part 2: Love & Sorrow: Melbourne Museum’s Storyteller app

Other posts on MONA and The O
Richard Flanagan: The Tasmanian Devil
Ed Rodley: MONA – revolutionary, and not
Ed Rodley: MONA’s ‘The O’ mobile guide
Seb Chan: Experiencing The O at MONA
Nancy Proctor: Love, Hate or Punt? Opinions and prevarications about MONA and its O

*       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

POSTSCRIPT: On going back after the fact

Saving content for later is considered one of the most useful features of mobile technology, but I’m keen to know more about who goes back, how many do, and why?

Did I look at what I’d saved on The O? Only very briefly. (I’m a working Mum, too busy for that.) When I do eventually return, I’ve forgotten my password – the quintessential problem in the digital age.

Chris Ofili, The Holy Virgin Mary, 1996

Chris Ofili, The Holy Virgin Mary, 1996

I reset it and select Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary. The Art Wank is interesting and well structured, but I’m soon onto the Gonzo. There, I partake like a voyeur – half intrigued, half repelled – in the musings of three people (including Walsh) about virginity, sex, and lesbianism. Let’s face it, voyeurism is core to the MONA experience.

I also glance at Tracking Happiness, by Mircea Cantor, which irritated me intensely when I saw it. A bunch of young women sweeping a room, over and over. Only Gonzo is available for this one, and what do I read from Luke Hortle? ‘Look to be frank, I find this work really irritating.’ Hallelujah!

Finally Fat Car – a bulging, distended red sports car by Erwin Wurm. Again, the Art Wank is interesting, though one line makes me prickle: ‘Wurm makes us pause and ponder on self-image, human desire, and mindless over-consumption.’ Perhaps he does, but why the global ‘us/we’, as if everyone should read the work this way.

Erwin Wurm, Fat Car, 2006

Erwin Wurm, Fat Car, 2006

Again, the Gonzo wins me over. I hear about a young girl, Misty, who eats lots of pies. And Olivier, who suggests that his friend should lose some weight, prompting a ‘defriending’. These rambling associations better reflect the associations I make when looking at the art, and that’s why I like them. I’m emotionally rather than just intellectually connected.

Again, it’s MONA content that captures me, as much as the delivery mechanism. Good stories win every time. Like Alice in Wonderland.

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One Response to Down the rabbit hole at MONA & Melbourne Museum: Part 1

  1. Pingback: Down the rabbit hole at MONA & Melbourne Museum: Part 2 | MUSE-UM … Musings on museums, storytelling, multimedia, and more

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