Visiting MONA was my birthday present. An odd choice maybe, but when I clocked up another year back in February I couldn’t think of anything I wanted. But a chance to visit (arguably) Australia’s most talked about museum? I couldn’t pass that up. So in lieu of a gift, my family helped fund a trip to Hobart, which I finally got around to doing earlier this month (I also saw the recently refurbished Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, more on which in a future post).
So . . . what is there write about a place that has already attracted hundreds of column inches already (including some penned by yours truly)?
The problem with visiting such a well-known place is that the answer to the question “so what did you think of it??” is so often “pretty much as I was expecting”. You’ve heard so much, there’s not much room for surprises. That’s still better than when you visit a place and don’t think it lives up to the hype. For me this wasn’t the case, although what I saw vindicated my decision to visit solo (my partner is less than impressed by most contemporary art and I think the whole thing would have just infuriated him).
The other thing is that I think I’m getting really bad at being just a visitor and experiencing museums for what they are. My visits have become “meta-visits”: rather than being able to just be in the moment, part of me is always mentally standing back – observing how things are laid out, watching what others were doing, deconstructing my own responses. Occupational hazard I suppose.
To get to MONA I took the ferry, which I think is the usual way for tourists to get there. And this is where the MONA experience starts. There is a dedicated terminal and ferry, the MONA Roma, which is decked out in the sort of irreverent fashion you’d expect given MONA’s “brand”:
So the ferry doubles as a mode of transport and a (pre-) entrance statement – something akin to what Falk and Dierking would call an “advance organiser”. And while I didn’t realise it at the time, I think this pre-experience had an impact on how I approached the museum visit itself. But more on that later.
Upon arrival we were escorted up the stairs from the dock and into the museum, heading back down again to start the visit at B3 level (three levels underground). Here we were given our “O” devices to guide us on our visit (more on those below). In the distance I could hear some periodic pumping and hissing which added to a sense of anticipation / apprehension (it turned out to be Julius Popp’s Bit.Fall which spells out words in falling water droplets). I turned a corner and found myself heading down a long corridor, lined with red velvet drapes that made me feel like I was walking into a scene from Twin Peaks. Heading out of this area I went up some industrial-type steel stairs that intersect at odd angles across the void, exhibits in view in semi-darkness above and below. Here the feel is more like the video game Half-Life (pop-culture references came to mind readily for some reason!).
Mid-way along this level the corridor narrows, with small galleries off to each side. One of these works is Brigita Ozolins’ Kryptos – an eerie-feeling room-within-a-room-within-a room that you meander into like a labyrinth.
This work brought out the environmental psychologist in me – the darkness, confined space and the lighting effects creating the sense of a floating floor all worked together to give me a real sense of trepidation about walking in (even as my rational side was telling me there was no real reason to fear). It was interesting to see how this environment was able to elicit such a visceral response in me (there I go, meta-visiting again . . .) Shortly after leaving this space, the corridor opened out into a wide open space covering two levels. After such a sense of confinement, this sense of openness an relative light (it was still pretty dark) provided a sense of welcome relief. I wonder if it’s just me, or if this orchestration of emotion was a deliberate move on the part of the architect.
From Driver to Passenger – going along for the ride
I’ve written a couple of times this year about how some visitors like to know where they are at in a museum’s spatial and content narrative, whereas others are happy to go with the flow. I’m usually in the former but at MONA, I was happy to surrender myself to the experience more than I usually do. That raises the question – why?
I had a chance to give this a bit of thought during a workshop held as part of the Museums Australia conference in Canberra last week. I’ll flesh this out in more detail in a later post, but I started to think about how we “cast” ourselves in a visitor experience – do we like to be in control (a driver) or surrender to the experience (a passenger)?*
Reflecting on my own experiences, I’ve decided that in most cases I like to drive. But in this instance, I decided to be a passenger. I think that was partly because of some specific circumstances, and partly because my expectations of MONA were different from those of a “typical” museum.
Although they have visitor maps, I didn’t actually pick one up upon entry (they escorted us, the first ferry arrivals of the day, in a way that we bypassed the main ticket desk which is where they are located). So I only had the “O” device to guide me, and while this does have a map function, I didn’t feel overly worried about using it. I only picked up a map towards the end of my visit, just to double-check there wasn’t anything I had inadvertently missed.
As I said before, I’m also wondering if the ferry ride had a role to play in all this, by providing a temporal separation between the first sense of arrival (embarking on the ferry) and getting into the museum experience proper. Once you were on the ferry, all the logistics of worrying about whether you were in the right place, had the right ticket, etc. etc were behind you and you were – literally – cast in the role of passenger. Did this make it easier for me to be a passenger during the visit itself?
Anyone who has read anything about MONA will know that they have no labels. Instead, you are given a device called the “O”, which is essentially an ipod touch made location-aware by wifi transmitters installed around the museum. I already knew a bit about how this worked (having researched it for an article I wrote back in 2011), so it was interesting to have a go and see how it worked in practice. Generally speaking it worked quite well, and it does offer quite a different experience to that with standard labels.
As you move around the museum, the O lists works which are near to you and you can select them to read a standard label (these are titled “artwank”) or more atypical musings (titled “gonzo” or “ideas”). You are also invited to “love” or “hate” works and when you do so, you find out how many other visitors felt the same way. Not all labels are accompanied by audio but some works were pieced with music which I thought was an interesting idea, and one which had me lingering longer at some works than I otherwise would have.
A couple of things about using the O though – while each work had an identifying thumbnail image, sometimes it took a while to find the corresponding piece of work because of scale – the work you were looking for might be a tiny thing in a peephole, or a giant installation hanging overhead. Also (and this might just be me) I found the O gave me an obsession with “collecting” all the works in a particular area before moving on – I wanted to mark everything as “seen” in a way I wouldn’t have worried about with just regular labels.
Technically speaking, the O worked well overall – in some instances the location got a little confused, but this was easily fixed by pressing a reset button. The only thing is, I think my device didn’t record all of my visit. Going through the summary, I noticed a number of works that the website says I “missed”, when I know I did in fact visit it. Looking at what’s been missed, I wonder if I accidentally reset something when I nipped into the loo because it doesn’t seem to have recorded anything I visited after that. Oh well.
*Extending the metaphor, you might end up being a “backseat driver” when an experience affords you less control than you’d like.