Tuesday, January 25, 2011

MONA and the Wow factor

We have been helping MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, with a whole range of conservation issues over the last eighteen months, so I was lucky enough to be asked to the opening on Friday 21st January.

And my goodness what an opening it was! The morning rain cleared, so the ferry ride from Constitution Dock up the Derwent showed off Hobart at its prettiest (takes c20 minutes and is the BEST way to approach the Museum), and we were then deposited at the pier from which a flight of steps takes one up onto the top of the Museum, rather like going up the side of a pyramid. A scene of great splendour met us assisted by a vast array of fine Tasmanian food, and wine and beer from the adjacent Morilla Winery, including the famous Moo Brew beer. Standing there in the evening light looking out over the enchanting vista of the Derwent River and the hills rising to Mt Wellington, helped no doubt with a glass or two of the Moo Brew, our senses were certainly heightened for all that MONA was going to reveal.

From there a large circular staircase, rather like, but on a smaller scale, than the Vatican Museums staircase carries visitors down to the lowest floor of the Museum to begin the tour. The staircase has been cut into the sandstone, and at its base one passes through a passage way of two spectacular rock faces with shades of entering Petra. And it was quite a spectacle that greeted us. Apart from tables literally laden with food of all descriptions, all beautifully arranged like Dutch still life paintings, the art is everywhere. There is no chronological or thematic sequence, and no labels, and one wanders through antiquities and contemporary art all interposed.

And does it work? – impossible to tell with such a crowd there, but my gut feel is that this is something pretty special that is going to have a major impact on the Australian museum sector. The controversial items, particularly those themed on sex and death, did not seem to me to be as shocking as I thought they might be, but what I did get a feel for was the wonderful use of space and vistas and voids that the architect and museum team have achieved. It is a truly awesome building which constantly appears to have been designed around the art (which I think is what has actually happened in a number of cases).

One particular feature is the lack of labels, with all content provided via iPhone. These are handed out at the entrance (and hopefully collected on the way out, though I did constantly hear the alarm at the exit going off during the evening – absent minded guests?), along with some minimal instruction on their use. Perhaps because of the party atmosphere, no one was particularly listening to the instructions, so I did hear people asking each other how it works and getting somewhat exasperated with their use. When you are in front of an artwork you push the update button and the iPhone works out where you are, and identifies the artworks in your vicinity. The information is a simple image and artist and artwork details, but there are further options to get more information on the artwork and artist, read a quirky view on it (these apparently change so your next visit may reveal something different), listen to some audio, and also vote on whether you like it or not. At some stage to keep the iPhone live, you have to type in your email address, a neat idea for keeping in contact with visitors, sold as MONA being able to keep you updated and also advise how long you spent in front of each artwork. I liked it, but suspect it is going to need quite a bit more refining and visitor instruction to fulfil its potential.

Above all it is a place with undoubted Wow factor. Ignore the costs (reputedly $70m for the building housing a $100m collection) and ignore the questions as to whether some of the offerings are actually art. MONA has moments of taking your breath away. It is a stunning new attraction on the museum scene and one that I would encourage you to visit as soon as you can. Check out a couple of reviews from The Punch and Taste Travel.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

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