The experience of MONA

Last week, I was lucky enough to visit the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart at the tail end of an amazing trip to Tasmania - (see below vids if interested!) and as an experience designer all I could think about was the incredible work that had gone in to make every visit to MONA amazing.

The museum and its founder David Walsh are surrounded by equal parts hype and mystery. I can now say that it definitely lived up to the hype but that even after visiting, I’m no less intrigued about this place, its story and the creators of the incredible experience that is a visit to MONA.

I’ve attempted to boil down a multi-faceted emotional, sensory and intellectually stimulating experience into certain design principles and considerations that I think (although can only speculate) may have been involved in the conception of the place and the experience of visiting it. If anyone involved in its creation reads this - I would love to be corrected or enlightened!

My best guess at what Mona’s design principles might be

- MONA is like a cool party that everybody wants to be at

- MONA is open - everyone is welcomed (and feels part of the arty party)

- MONA is what it says: a museum of old and new art, but it is like no museum you’ve been to

- MONA is a feast for the senses and the intellect, with surprises at every turn


The landscape.

To get to MONA it is highly recommended that you travel by the ‘mona roma’ boat - or MR-1 (more on this later). If you decide to do this, you’re treated to impressive views of Hobart harbour aboard an even more impressive vessel, on your way to the museum. The 30 minute ride is filled with interesting anecdotes from the captain about the harbour. The view from each seat has been considered, but also the view of each seat. The seats themselves are sculptures. 

The first impression of the MR-1 means that anticipation only builds as you approach MONA and see a James Bond-style building cut into a rock face. The first thing you do upon stepping out of the boat is climb 99 stairs. From inside MONA, the shapely symmetrical windows beautifully frame the view outside. Then immediately after entering the building you descend a spiral staircase wrapping around a transparent elevator shaft, as though you’re part of a giant drill, one of many points at which you're quite literally immersed in the landscape.

The soundscape.

As I moved through the entrance I could at once hear the water droplets of bit.scape crashing rhythmically to my right and the buzz / click of Pulse Room’s incandescent light bulbs flicking on and off in time with the pulse of the heart of someone to my right. In another cave-like cut out I hear data.tron clicking, whirring and chiming away while a mass Maddona karaoke team sang out of a nearby room.

Walking down the stairs my boots struck steel and echoed as though I was walking around the deepest darkest of caves or mines. When I entered the unisex toilet I entered a space filled with howling, hollow, crashing sounds that moved around me. There were so many aural surprises.

The artscape.

Moving through MONA, you move from Egyptian sarcophagus to bleeding edge video art, from a pink fur ‘Paradise’ into a ‘Death Gallery’ where you must walk on stones situated in pitch black water. Much of the artwork is extremely physical - a giant Buddha moulded from incense dust that will shrink in size as a result of you looking at it, ‘Cloaca Professional’ a machine that recreates the digestive system of a human body from food to faeces - producing a physical reaction in itself and in its audience. I was moved to feel the age of the ancient pieces in the collection and the humanity put forward and preserved in all art.

The senses.

My ears weren’t the only thing that delighted. My eyes feasted on a building that provided rich texture, colour and interest around every corner. The two pictures below were taken looking up and down from the same place. The use of darkness, light, pattern and colour were powerful and all-consuming. Even taste was considered, with food freshly cooked by chefs from local produce served both on the boat and in the cafe. A sign outside the Museum Cafe ironically displaying a rotation of neon Pizza Hut, KFC, McDonalds and Dominos logos.

The app.

Yeah, so there’s not so much that’s new about having an app show you through a museum or event. But at MONA I relied on the device that had been put in my hand because I actually found myself desperately wanting to record and cling onto the experience I was having, to go back to the things I was reading and seeing and revisit the experience. I found myself taking photos of one iPhone (where my app was displayed) with another (my own phone) before I realised I could send myself the tour to look at later.

This says more about the quality of the art and accompanying words than the app itself, but nevertheless I was compelled to capture it. The digital tour app was a true augmentation of the physical experience I was having viewing artwork. It identified artwork nearby me, it told me a little about the artist, a little about some ideas that were connected to the work and the lengthier parts were the musings of expert observers of the art that read like rambling blog posts but offered human insights, as though you were walking around the museum by the side of a very informed and entertaining friend.

MONA O TOUR digital interactive museum tour

The grandeur.

While being carried across Hobart harbour on a ship that resembled a battle ship (and took the piss out of battle ships at once - with retro military-style typography and staff in bomber jackets and Tom-Cruise-in-Top-Gun cover alls) I felt like I'd dropped in on James Bond or the Royal Family. I got to feel what it might be like to be a V. VIP. But so did everyone beside me. The spectacular MR-1 - pictured below and developed by Great Scott Design - was a form of public transport.

On a personal level, the visit made me feel special for being included in the kind of grandeur that is usually exclusive and exclusionary. This technique - of improving people's sense of self by improving their experience (as though everyone deserves excellent culture and spaces) - has been adopted with great success by organisations such as the National Centre for Indigenous Excellence in the design of their Sydney centre. If you want to make people feel good about themselves, feel like they are deserving of something excellent, and ultimately to produce excellence themselves - simply invite them to be involved in something excellent.


The legacy. 

There I was, gawping at an artwork and fumbling with my app when I was invited to save my tour and enter my email to revisit it later.

Now, it takes a lot to get me to hand over my email to the marketing machine of a tourist attraction. Yet here I was gleeful that MONA had asked me for it and I could stay in touch with the museum and my experience . I knew there and then that I would have a lasting relationship with the museum, not because I handed over my email address, but because the experience would have a lasting impact on me.

Two of the questions put to me in a post-visit survey were: ‘Did your visit to MONA make your life richer?’ and ‘Was it inspiring?’ These are the questions we should be asking ourselves after visiting any institution, or attending any cultural event. The answer, in this case, was yes.

In opening MONA, David Walsh has let us all share in his wealth and the feeling of being wealthy. The world is richer as a result . Not in money - but in all the riches of a great society; art, warmth, inclusion and culture.