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.
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.
A 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.
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?
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?
I 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.
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.
We 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.
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.