I jumped at the opportunity to visit MONA (Museum of Old and New Art) on my recent holiday to Tasmania. I didn’t know a great deal about this very new institution before my visit. My Mum’s cousin had told her it was a “must see”. And our Tasmanian friends had been before and were enthusiastic to take us again. Words like controversial, confronting, shocking seemed to be associated with it. MONA is a privately funded cross between a Museum and a Gallery. It also has a small reference library (no borrowing allowed) which looked like a pretty relaxing job for the librarian who was on duty we visited. The only other people in there were a man and his baby son taking a break from looking at the art and things.
So while MONA calls itself a museum, it also incorporates aspects of an art gallery in the items on display. There is indeed a mix of old (Egyptian relics, greek coins, ancient pottery, tablets etc) and new (the “poo machines”, the casts of 151 vaginas). Sex, death and religion are all very close to the surface. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it (I am still undecided) MONA is a thing of striking beauty. Before we get to the collection (of which I only managed to get to part of) there is the building itself..carved into a sandstone point with views of the Derwent. It’s built on a grand scale. Visitors enter at the top of the hill and then are transported down three floors into the ground via a lift (or stairs if you prefer). Then you lose all sense of location. So much of the MONA experience is intuitive and unexpected. Follow this corridor, walk through this door into a new room, move quickly from dark to surgically bright light, stand in shadows. Sure there’s a map but I didn’t even try to follow it. It was better just to wander about and see what was around the next corner. Surprise is built into the curation of the collection in the space.
The other delight was the iPod, satnav guide device that you wear around your neck as your wander about. Set up with MONA’s collection, at any time it tells you where you are, which artworks are nearby, a little bit about them and asks you whether you “love” or “hate” it. So the building is filled with people alternatively staring at installations and then peering at their iPod guide. You have to you use it. There are no friendly white cards next to anything to tell you the artist or the title of any work. It forces visitors to actively take part in the viewing experience. It invites your opinion. I would have liked a button that said “indifferent”…there were some things that I didn’t love or hate. Still…I felt compelled to make a decision on everything I looked at. This was perhaps the most participatory museum/gallery experience I have had.
Finally, I really liked the fact that you could get up close and personal with the pieces. You could also take photos. What a bonus! No scary security guards telling you to take your backpack off or to stand behind the line. You were allowed to touch things if you wanted to. Again, visitors are encouraged to be involved with the viewing experience. And then, if you have entered your email into your iPod guide you get home and find a virtual replication of your tour that you can return to at any time through the MONA website.
Here’s some photos I took with my phone: