Catherine StewartReview: MONA – it lost me at the gate

As we left the internationally acclaimed Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart, Tasmania, Tony said “Well that’s 2 hours of my life I’ll never get back“. What went wrong? I’d arrived at MONA with high expectations (in truth, more than he had) and recommendations from friends who had loved their visit. But I think that MONA has some serious flaws, starting with site layout, signage and landscape design.

My MONA story is a case study of how an entry landscape design, signage and layout can really influence, or prejudice, a person’s experience of a place. The overall design can say ‘welcome’ and ‘you belong here’, drawing a visitor in and enhancing everything about their time there. When you feel a valued part of something, you’re much more likely to forgive problems or any disappointments.

On the other hand, that entry landscape can communicate ‘I don’t care about you‘ and ‘you don’t belong here‘, either deliberately or inadvertently. I’m still unsure about whether MONA is deliberate about it or not but, given the ego of its founder and owner David Walsh, I suspect it is.

Several of the people I knew who’d been to MONA had said that it’s best to arrive by ferry from Hobart city but we’ve done ferry trips along the Derwent before. Added to that we already had a hire car and were staying a distance out of Hobart so we’d have had to find somewhere in the city to leave it for the afternoon. Possibly not usually a problem but with the wonderful biennial Wooden Boat Festival in full swing, the city was hoaching, and car parking at a premium.

The ferry ride costs $20 per person, whether it’s one way, or return. On top of the entry ticket (non-Tasmanians pay), that would make for an expensive afternoon for two, so we opted to drive and park. We had to park outside the site which was fine, as it was a lovely day and an easy and pleasant walk up the tree-lined avenue. Well it’s an easy walk until the path, which is on the left hand side of the road inexplicably stops, and you face your first obstacle.

MONA - end of the entrance avenue but where to go now?

MONA – end of the entrance avenue but where to go now?

The driveway forks, and the sign doesn’t tell you which way to go to MONA, which you’d think was most people’s preferred destination. We pondered. Up and left to ‘P’, or right to disabled ‘P’ and ‘Deliveries’? Although we could see a building up to the left, something about the road looked a little more industrial, so we opted for the right.

MONA - second decision pointA little further on, there was another fork in the road and a second unhelpful selection of options, with a disabled ‘P’ and ‘Deliveries’ to the left, and a Loading Dock apparently down to our right. The driveway up and to our right is …hmmm…unknown or unnamed. But I can see there’s a change of paving surface along that right hand driveway and that looks a little bit more ‘entry-like’? Maybe? OK, let’s go right.

We passed one building on our right but it didn’t look big enough to be MONA. I hear that it is the Administration building and has a small printed sign on it saying ‘This is not the Museum of Old and New Art’. Now that’s helpful.

MONA Raised beds with conifers

MONA Raised beds with conifers

Continuing on past some raised garden beds filled with a curious selection of conifers, we arrive at an amazing sculpture – a semi-trailer that’s carrying a truck and it’s all made out of rusting iron ‘lace’. Wow. Then there’s the steel blade fence, which ‘wuthers’ appealingly as strong gusts of wind blow through it. Cool! But where’s MONA?

MONA Steel 'lace' trucks

MONA Steel ‘lace’ trucks

MONA - 'singing' fenceI can see a building some 30m off, but it has no sign on it, just featureless black doors. And directly in front of us is, perplexingly, is a full-sized tennis court – net, lights and all.

MONA - walkway and tennis court

MONA – walkway and tennis court

MONA - a queue to something...

MONA – a queue to something…

As we approach the tennis court we see that to the right of the tennis net there’s a large queue of people waiting for something that’s down some stairs to the right of the building. Is it to get in to MONA?

MONA signpostI check the sign before the tennis court. The arrow pointing to the building says ‘Toilets’ and the arrow up the stairs to ‘Reception’ and a ‘Function Centre’. Ahh, we think, those people must be queuing for something else as MONA is up the stairs.

But no. Up the stairs is a large building but there’s a market on behind it and no sign of a MONA, not even for our ready money. But we do find MONA owner David Walsh’s car (a brand new Tesla). We know it’s his because his car space is clearly marked ‘Reserved GOD’. How amusing! And to the right of it is partner Kirsha Kaechele’s car space, marked ‘Reserved GOD’S MISTRESS‘. The feminist in me bridles instantly at a woman accepting being described in terms of what she is to her man.

GOD's car space

Of course, you're supposed to read the reverse side of the sign

Of course, you’re supposed to read the reverse side of the sign

Turning back, we decide we’d better get on that queue, as that must be it.

But no. That turns out to be a queue for the return ferry. And then we see that on the reverse of the sign there’s a different list. Now we find that on the far side of the tennis court and through the unmarked doors appears to be a whole host of other things, including the Museum of Old and New Art. Eureka! I’m still a bit hopeful it will be exciting. Well, we’ve only be wandering about for 15 minutes and, even though it’s Tasmania, today it’s not raining.

We cross the tennis court, the black doors open on our approach and Lo! inside the doors it says proudly, MUSEUM OF OLD AND NEW ART.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe enter the building and are confounded again. There are several desks, each is staffed and each has people at them. But again there are no signs. Is one information and the others tickets? How much are the tickets? By now, we’re getting tired of guessing.

A 30-something man comes up to us and says ‘Hello, here you are at MONA!’ I reply that we don’t know where to buy our ticket and he smiles and gestures vaguely, saying ‘Anywhere!’ At this desk? ‘Sure!’ Why are there no signs to, or for, anything? “Well it is a private museum you know’, he says conspiratorially. (We are nonplussed about what difference that makes). But how is anyone supposed to know how to find their way in and where to go? We arrived by car and have been wandering around for 15 minutes with no idea how to find what we came for. Why are there no signs to MONA anywhere?? Can you explain to us how this is supposed to work?

The hipster ‘guide’ with his bare ankles, bushranger beard and carefully curled tash looks us up and down, says dismissively ‘Oh you’ll work it out‘, turns on his heel, and walks away.

MONA - Rivers of Fundament

MONA – Rivers of Fundament

At this point I am ready to swear quite loudly in the main foyer and turn around and walk out. MONA obviously doesn’t want the likes of us as its patrons. We don’t belong. But here we are and we won’t be back so we buy 2 tickets for $25 each, a special higher-than-normal price for the special exhibition of Matthew Barney’s ‘Rivers of Fundament’ and descend to the depths of MONA.

The internal architecture is astonishingly wonderful with a mix of cavernous and small spaces, golden sandstone and interesting passageways. However, sadly, ‘Rivers of Fundament’ is pretentious rubbish. (Think a partly consumed and now-rotting suckling pig carcass inside a glass display case. And no, that’s not my evaluation, it’s an actual exhibit.) And maybe the best MONA exhibits had been removed temporarily for Barney’s stuff, but I found little to interest me. I knew that MONA is touted to be all about sex and death, and had expected some worthwhile observations about both so I was surprised that most of it just reflects a preoccupation with bits of bottoms and their various purposes. Which, to me, isn’t sex.

I’ve been to two Sydney Biennales, and one in Venice, as well as the Sydney Museum of Contemporary Art on many occasions. Each in its own way has been unforgettable and I have been confounded, confronted, entertained and delighted. But not at MONA.

But maybe that’s because MONA had lost me before I’d even got inside it.

Is this a new style of ‘generationist’ landscape designing? Maybe I am being discounted (and potentially discarded) because, unlike a GenX or GenY patron, I want to be advised and guided. I like reading instructions and maps and following signs. I like clear, shortest route pathways to where I want to go. Rather than pinging about the MONA site, like the intuitive style that a younger person brings to interacting with information technology where everything is clicked seemingly randomly until something works, I want to know and be able to make an informed decision about something before I begin.

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Catherine Stewart

About Catherine Stewart

Award-winning garden journalist, blogger and photographer; writer for garden magazines and co-author of 'Waterwise Gardening'; landscape designer turned landscape design judge and critic; compulsive networker and lover of generally putting fingers in lots of pies. Particularly mud pies. Creator, curator and editor of GardenDrum. Sydney, NSW.

38 thoughts on “Review: MONA – it lost me at the gate

  1. Wow. I’ve never heard anything but gushing praise for MONA. I’ll make sure I arrive by ferry.

    As much as I’d like to retrace – and thus confirm the frustrations of – your journey, it makes for a pretty expensive sneer, doesn’t it…

  2. Azz on said:

    MONA is an amazing wonderful place, we have been there many times, making special trips to Tasmania to visit.
    I’m not sure what you expect from the world Catherine, but I know you don’t belong at MONA. Best you head back to where ever it is you come from to the safety of home.
    Our ten year old gets MONA, its not that hard……….. sorry, I’m not going to share that with you. I can hear David Walsh laughing as he reads your review.

    • Thanks Azz. I don’t usually publish unpleasant comments that ‘play the man and not the ball’ but I will publish yours, as your attitude and the fact that your 10 year old gets MONA supports both my conclusions about it. As for David Walsh – he has said that traditional art museums were “designed to inculcate a sense of inferiority, to prepare you for the instilling of faith”. In his museum he does exactly the same. It just alienates a different group.

  3. Catherine, I feel your frustration! Signage generally fascinates me and, as you say, poor signage can so easily make us feel unwelcome and unwanted. But goodness me, do you really think this guy has commissioned an entrance landscape that actively seeks to discourage and alienate large numbers of visitors?

    Surely you can be quirky and modern without being so high-handed you just appear incompetent…

  4. Peter on said:

    MONA is trying a little too hard to be something its not. It’s in Tassie for goodness sake, not Manhattan! I was disappointed but I guess for Tassie its something new

    • Gay Messer on said:

      As if Tassie can’t have something that is the best in the World! Which MONA is. Catherine’s review just reflects on her, not on MONA. Push the boundaries Catherine and get out of your comfort zone!

      • Gay, I’m not sure what you mean by my opinion reflects on me but not MONA. Of course it reflects on MONA as well, and I’m as entitled to have a negative opinion of it as you are to have a positive one. I’ve enjoyed and been challenged by contemporary art all over the world – but, if you had read my review carefully, you would have understood that it’s not the art that I’m commenting on. It’s the landscaping around the outside of MONA that I think is poorly designed. It doesn’t challenge or say anything worthwhile about life or art, it just confuses, annoys and excludes.

  5. Azz on said:

    Hey, sorry, I agree. Bad form on my part. I am glad you did post it though.
    As I said, we have been many times to MONA since it opened.
    I guess what I love about the place is the lack of signs, for me its asking to be explored. I love there isn’t direction to go here, be there, don’t touch this, think like this.
    Enter the grounds, be engulfed. Each time I have been, something new has been discovered.
    When I go to IKEA, I take all the short cuts to the end and then come backwards through the store, you see another side of the place then.

    David Walsh is an interesting man, I highly encourage everyone to read his autobiography. I am not sure to be disturbed by this person or enlightened. I do know I like what he has done at MONA and for Tasmania in general.

    David wanted the museum to be free for all to visit, the cost to non Tasmanians was forced upon him, the Tasmanian government were (understandably) worried he could not fund this without the public paying to enter.

    I guess what I don’t like about your review is that it attacks my way of thinking, I choose to stay away from places that have signs & rules. We choose to have art, things & stuff where we like it. Chaos in a regulated world.

    Sorry I took your words personally. 🙂

    • Azz, having a different opinion to you about something doesn’t attack your way of thinking. I don’t like corn either and could give you several good reasons for that. But that’s not an attack on anyone else’s right to love it.
      I think that if it’s not David Walsh’s choice to charge non-Tasmanians an entry fee, then that requires him even more to offer a value-for-money experience to all comers, regardless of preferences. We wandered around for a couple of hours. Inside, we saw lots of stuff 2 or 3 times and maybe missed 50% of what else was there – maybe even the better exhibits. But who would know? However my blog post is not really about what’s inside MONA as what isn’t outside it, and how a landscape design can welcome and subtly guide, or disorientate and alienate. A good landscape designer doesn’t need any signs to to do that, as it can be done very well with things like pavement surfaces, shaping paths and spaces, sightlines, art, plant selection and lighting.
      And there are signs outside around MONA, so that people who are delivering goods, or wanting to find a parking space to attend a wedding at the Chapel know where to go, presumably because Walsh knows they wouldn’t tolerate it otherwise. Just no signs for newcomers, with many of them required to pay for the privilege of entry.

  6. Azz on said:

    ps I stumbled upon your blog by chance, I have since read a few of your other pieces. It seems we have a lot in common, just not a love for MONA 🙂

  7. Haven’t been to MONA since its first year of opening. I found it underwhelming on entry – so do agree with much of your response to the place – and overwhelming within. Some exhibitions wonderful, some a bit confronting or boring. I guess that is art galleries …. It’s a pity that there wasn’t a more positive or interested response from the guy near the entry desks!

  8. I arrived by car. I got lost. I got frustrated. I did think it improved after that though!

  9. Love MONA, love Hobart and love my home state. Can’t wait to get back. ASAP.

    • I love Hobart and every other bit of Tasmania too Peta. The Wooden Boat Festival was brilliant, Hobart sparkled, and also my first time in the Huon Valley stunned me with its charm and beauty. If not for the cold weather, I think we would move there tomorrow!

  10. Zoé on said:

    Catherine your writing sizzles with your frustration! And rightly so – what woman would ever want to access a place with a parking bay for G’s Mistress? Hullooooo – for thee and me I suspect nothing less than Goddess would suit! Top marks for well-written honesty.

  11. Being a Tasmanian who hadn’t been to MONA until just recently, I must say I was also disappointed Catherine. We did go on the ferry, and that was actually the best part of the day!
    I was waiting expectantly to be wowed, and indeed was fully appreciative of the building, however the contents of the museum in combination with how they were presented left me wanting a lot more.
    I didn’t like the lack of signage within the museum itself and the need to constantly have my head stuck in the handheld electronic reader – bring back comprehensive signage I say! Maybe I am old school. There was clearly a lot if interesting historical exhibits there, however I didn’t go there to keep flicking across screens to read about it. I wanted to be wowed by the presentation of the information in front of me.
    Yes, ‘art’ is in the eye of the beholder, but I didn’t find too much there for me I must say.
    We were also looking forward to a nice relaxing lunch and the cafe was way too small for the crowd on the day and inadequate seating.
    So i hear you!

  12. brownthumbgardener on said:

    My partner and I visited Mona via car about 18 months ago and parked in the disabled spot next to Reserved GOD. Both GOD and GOD’s mistress were elsewhere so it presented a nice photo opportunity. David Walsh has a wicked sense of humour and MONA is designed to confront. After all, there are steps leading away from the disabled parking. It is madness and wonderful. I seem to recall that there was the services of a golf-cart to take you to the entrance if you required.

    The tennis court is strange and you are right, the entrance is not the least obvious but we found the security staff very helpful and also the staff. We were given a discount so I expect pricing is a little flexible. It is in the nature of the unusual and, I think quite wonderful for this day and age, beast that is David Walsh.

    The layout of the place is wonderful and confusing at the same time. The space amazing and the art varies from fairly conventional to very confronting – as I would have expected. Yes, we got lost and you have to do a lot of walking, but there was also a lot of joy in the process.

    I accept the quirkiness of the place; it is very much part of the experience. My only complaint was that the cafe was too small to cater for number of people that wanted to use it.

    My only regret was that we did not have more time to spend there. A second visit is on the cards.

  13. I went to MONA 12 months ago, arriving by car. The entry seemed a bit strange but I was expecting anything but normal. It was a fun day and I actually enjoyed having the mobile device instead of having to jostle to read the signs beside the exhibits and it was good to receive the email with all the exhibits noted therein that I had liked with descriptions, etc. For someone with a bad memory, it was a nice touch. As we left there were chooks milling around the vineyards, another quirky touch. Gardens totally uninspirational. Joy

  14. I was looking forward to visiting MONA, having heard so many good things about it. I was eager to see innovative art that sparked controversy and encouraged debate, but that’s not what I discovered. The building is interesting and I like the way it huddles into the earth but the exhibits inside were a great disappointment. Mostly pretentious and without substance.
    Re: the landscaping and how it welcomes or discourages you: the approach from the parking lot wasn’t too confusing and some of the artwork outside made me even more eager to enter. I had been told about the ‘across the tennis court’ entrance so I knew where to go. But like the exhibits, this entrance makes no sense (ok, sometimes senseless can be fine in and of itself) but rather demonstrates a fake kind of ‘cool’ attitude to art and those who visit the museum. Is this entrance meant to suggest an attitude towards art — a back and forth battle for supremacy? That’s juvenile, in my opinion. Real debate isn’t founded on confrontation but on a desire to understand a different point of view.

    • Andrew on said:

      It’s someone’s private collection they’ve been generous enough to share.
      As for landscape – I’ve worked in galleries for much of my adult life (I moved from Melbourne recently specifically to work at MONA so I may be biased) and I’ve not encountered any others built into a cliff above a river at the top of a vineyard. Walking to work is a pleasure.

      I love the fact that in a world where everything has to be spelt out by intrusive signage (which people still miss or misread anyway) that we can be trusted to think independently enough to find the front door.

      You found a sculpture and a queue. You knew you were close.

      Each to their own on the collection. I like some art and find it inspiring, other stuff leaves me cold. Same with MONA but what it does have going for it is a different approach which enabled me (first time I visited) to engage with each piece on its own level intimately. Free of didactics, labels, instructions, interpretations (they were busy and had run out of O devices) I just had to look, think and feel for myself. Most galleries I’m in and out in an hour or so (size dependent somewhat). MONA was a whole day and I still missed bits.
      I think MONA is beautiful, well designed, intriguing and exciting and I and many other people from the apple isle and elsewhere are very glad it exists. That ranges in my experience from artists and curators to local taxi drivers, CEOs of small Catholic Heritage Centres and strangers on the street.

      Sorry you didn’t enjoy it, hope you visit again one day with different expectations. The exhibits change very regularly by the way – Barney was not permanent collection but one of their 2 annual ‘big’ international exhibitions. Currently it’s Marina Abramovic so best to check out such artists before visiting a major exhibition. Not everything can be everyone’s tea of choice at the same moment. Many things are not mine.

      • How refreshing Andrew, to have a different opinion to mine expressed so intelligently…and politely. I very much appreciate your thoughts and I am pleased that this gallery has someone like you working there. Perhaps if I visit again I will be fortunate, and encounter you to help me come to terms with the inside parts of MONA. And, if there’s a next time, at least I’ll know where the door is.

        • Andrew on said:

          No worries. Art is many things to many people, galleries only present it in the best way they see fit.
          MONA works for me and many others but there are many things that work for many others that don’t work for me.
          Diversity makes life wonderful.

  15. Patrick on said:

    David Walsh’s MONA is his folly, not yet another tourist experience for the well-heeled to tick off their list. Anyone who visits expecting to be kowtowed to is in for a shock.

  16. Danielle on said:

    If it makes you feel any better, I’m Gen Y and I won’t be going back. I was underwhelmed.

  17. Auty Davis on said:

    consider the lack of signage in the landscape as a direct corollary of how people on the spectrum find themselves feeling when among normals

    • Good point! I shall keep this experience in mind as a lesson in what the world is like for people on the spectrum every day.

  18. Just back from Tasmania and my first visit to MONA. Sadly, I was disappointed by the collection on view. The grounds were not outstanding but my interest was with the art not the garden.

  19. Catspot Quoll on said:

    Hi Catherine, I certainly smiled at your reaction!

    I’m off to Tas again soon, but MONA has never been on my list because I’ve heard and read quite a bit about it, none of which has appealed – the dead pig!! What ghastly sight – I’ve seen one in a paddock…

    I’m keen on art and visit galleries wherever and whenever I can.
    Nobody tells me what’s ‘cool’ – that tired old contrivance – especially not a bearded hipster turning away on his booted heel. Or a maths whiz who calls himself God…

  20. Kim on said:

    Some visitors seemed to have a quasi-religious attitude to Mona. I wonder if that is because Mona is rather veiled in what it does. The collection doesn’t seem substantial, despite the Nolan and the Turrell, both of which stand out optimistically in isolation from the rest. The visitor has to overcome the revulsion of the senses. The exterior is inhospitable – the forbidding stairs, the suburban backyard, the rushing wind, the draughty, 1960s Roy Grounds house, which closes well before the last ferry. Then, the stunning gallery building is like another world. Perhaps the religiosity steps in because Mona is obscure.

    • That’s a most interesting idea, Kim. The vitriol that has poured forth and down on me as a result of my anti-MONA comments (the most unpleasant of which I refuse to publish, particularly that of a certain Hobart-based photographer) certainly has a religious fervour about it, rather than any well-reasoned rebuttal.

  21. Kim on said:

    Catherine, I’m very sorry to hear that you have received such answers. It is essential to the art world that art and galleries may be critiqued. Best Regards.

  22. Teresa on said:

    Same happen to us today. We could not find the entrance.

  23. Dusty on said:

    Just back from Hobart and a visit to MONA. Nothing has improved by the sound of it. It’s still hard to decide where to go and when you do get there you’re confronted by indifferent artwork and cacophonous noise. Would not recommend MONA but White Rabbit in Sydney, now that’s different.

  24. Brendan on said:

    I’m not a huge fan of modern art, much of it seems too try-hard, but I have been to a few well-known modern art museums: Pompidou, Tate Modern, Sydney Museum of Contemporary Art, and now MONA. I rated Pompidou as the best until I visited MONA. I found it an incredible experience – very different to Pompidou in many ways but I thought some of the works at MONA a big step above anything I saw at Pompidou.

    Yes the signposting is poor outside the gallery, but we just parked where it said “P” and walked in the general direction of the buildings. We found the front door without taking any wrong turns, even though it is not obvious and the tennis court immediately outside it is a somewhat bizarre juxtaposition. But who am I to judge the quirkiness of it all. Pretentious perhaps, but does every gallery have to follow an identikit formula, not daring to require visitors to tax their minds just a little bit, but instead lead them like sheep?

    The interior of the gallery was extraordinary. The idea of building it almost entirely below ground level, carved into sandstone (which must have cost a fortune), is I think inspired given the nature of the exhibits. I loved the architecture of it all.

    The electronic guide, rather than signs and labels, I thought totally suited the experience and added new twists such as the ability to vote on each display, hear interviews with the artists, and read the self-deprecating “art wank” reviews or Gonzos, none of which you can do with a static sign.

    Sure plenty of the works are weird, off-putting or simply not to my taste, but I’m not so arrogant as to expect that I should like everything there. If something was not for me I quickly moved on. But the works I did like I found breathtaking and unlike anything I have seen anywhere else on the planet.

  25. Brendan, thank you for those polite observations and contrary opinions. It’s so nice to be disagreed with without the horrible vitriol from many (unpublished) comments left in response to this review.
    My review is mostly about what’s outside (rather than what’s inside) at MONA, and how that disenfranchises as many MONA visitors as it excites, before they’ve even descended into those wonderful exhibition spaces. Walsh’s claim that he’s getting rid of the art gallery stuffiness that makes some people feel talked down to and excluded is exactly what MONA itself does too, just to a different group of people. If a gallery makes me (and many others by the comments) feel not hip enough to be there before I’ve even got inside, that’s just as pretentiously excluding.
    So I must take issue with your comment “But who am I to judge the quirkiness of it all”. If you or I don’t feel absolutely free and qualified to judge anything and everything about MONA, isn’t that evidence that it’s failed in its mission?

    • Brendan on said:

      Thanks for your reply. I use the word “judge” in its classical sense, of someone who has training and credentials in a given field of endeavor, delivering informed critique of the work of others in that field. That is different to liking or not liking something. I like some buildings and dislike others, but that does not mean I could judge an architecture award. Equally, I know what art I like, but that doesn’t mean I could judge the Archibald.

      Hence my statement “But who am I to judge the quirkiness of it all” is honest, recognising I am neither architect nor artist. It’s a shame that today there is a deficit of respect for people who do have real credentials and expertise, often pejoratively dismissed as “elites”, and instead there is a culture of everyone’s opinion is valid and everyone can “judge”.

      So no, it is not a failure of MONA’s mission that I am not in a position to judge its quirkiness. But I, as anyone else, can like or dislike elements of it, and that is entirely different.

      And if you could take one look at me, you would immediately see I am no hipster! I did not feel intimidated or excluded by MONA, I was energised by it!

      • Yes, I understand and agree with what you’re saying. But then as a trained landscape designer with years of professional practice and also garden critiquing and judging, I will feel comfortably qualified to judge as well as have an opinion about MONA’s landscaping, if not its art!

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