It’s tempting to describe David Walsh’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Tasmania, and “The O,” its iPod Touch guide developed by Art Processors, in the polarized terms that the guide itself encourages visitors to assign the artworks on display: love it or hate it. While that may be a fun and attention-grabbing game to play, it doesn’t really do justice to the complexity of the MONA experience, any more than Love/Hate votes accurately represent audience responses to the art. So I’m going to try to add a few notes to the excellent reviews of the MONA and O experiences already blogged by Seb Chan, Geoff Barker and Nicolaas Earnshaw, to flag not just what works and what doesn’t work (at least as intended or expected), but also the more interesting cases where the jury is still out.
The MONA Experience
LOVE: The biggest win at MONA is the immersive experience, in which all elements are perfectly and completely integrated and of the highest possible quality: from the landscape and the (recommended) arrival at the museum by boat, to the museum’s architecture, collections, exhibitions, library, visitor services, O guide, restaurant, winery, brewery and retail opportunities, everything seems mutually-supportive and organically wrapped around the visitor. This user-centric design is driven by the MONA team, who are clearly working together to achieve a common goal and agile enough to learn from their visitors and continually tweak the experience to optimize it. This is “network effects” at its best, and will make those who are still struggling in siloed organizations sigh with envy. For every mobile developer who has bemoaned their tour being an afterthought in the exhibition design, or seen it overlooked for lack of marketing, the O’s central role in making MONA a “whole greater than the sum of its parts” is a model to aspire to.
HATE: The MONA experience is very, very slick. And expensive. Unless you happen to live in Tasmania, it’s a pretty pricey day at the museum, and you have to go to MONA to see its collection (more on that later). I get nervous for the collection every time I think about what it must cost to run that place with such high production values and intense attention to detail: is it sustainable? (I sure hope so!!)
PUNT: Ultimately that great, integrated experience is all about the brand (not the art). Do we care? Maybe not. I know I’d recommend a visit to everyone from art snobs to art haters. As Geoff Barker says, it’s “NOT BORING,” and there’s enough there in the O and the website that if you really do want to get into the art, you can – if you can get to Tasmania!
LOVE: MONA is not the only museum to try to minimize or even ban the label from the galleries. I’m sure architects, exhibition designers and not a few curators love that idea and the freedom it gives them. While I don’t generally advocate getting rid of labels and wall texts (it just seems dumb to me to forgo multiple routes to understanding if you don’t have to), I love the idea of putting all interpretive content and information in the hands of the visitor, where s/he can access it up close and personal. A staff member at Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria confirmed that when she visited MONA with a group of 60-80 year olds, they loved being able to read text about the artworks without having to crowd around or read a label in dim light. Accessibility is potentially the real innovation here, if people with low vision can control the font size and color, and all audio and video can include accessible subtitling or text versions. Bonus points for including sign language and other languages!
HATE: I don’t think David Walsh’s avowed reasons for removing labels stand up: visitors are no “freer” without labels to form their own opinions about the artworks, let alone choose the order in which they view them. Random access audio tours have been around since the 1990s so nothing new there. The big loss in the O as in any random access mobile guide is narrative and the ability to tell a story across time and distance. Linear tours and especially the platforms that first introduced them may seem tired or too prescriptive to some, but if you’ve got a good story to tell, I’ll follow you to the end of the earth!
PUNT: Apparently when MONA opened, the ban on signage even extended to the facilities. I agree that it is probably useful to signal which parts of the museum are toilets, so they aren’t confused with contemporary artworks (though MONA’s loos do include art as well). But I also love the idea of being “delightfully lost”, as the team at Kew Gardens have described one of their mobile experiences. I’d like to see more play with signage in museums to make exploring the galleries more fun. And I suspect the developers of the O are right when they argue that people have a more emotional attachment to art that they’ve discovered for themselves.
Interactivity in the O: Voting and Bookmarking
LOVE: Since Tate Modern’s 2005 study of its multimedia tour by Silvia Filippini-Fantoni, we’ve known that voting and “bookmarking” or saving objects from a tour to a list that can be revisited later are the two most popular interactive mobile functions. I was fascinated to find that O gets the same usage – 20% of visitors save their tours – as Tate’s early multimedia tours did, despite the O’s more recent technology being much easier to use. It was cathartic to press the Love and Hate buttons the few times I was inspired to do so during my visit, and I obsessively tried to “visit” everything I looked at so I’d have an accurate record of my visit on the O website afterwards. These are such obviously good uses of mobile, networked devices they should be used always and everywhere to extend and enrich the museum experience – well, at least the recording of what objects I’ve looked at, as indicated by my interaction with the tour content. Bookmarks are a comfort when you start to get tired or run out of time: a promise to yourself to go back to learn and experience more later.
HATE: Also from working on Tate’s multimedia tours, I learned that voting is not enough: you have to give voters real feedback in real-time so they get some meaning from seeing their vote in a wider context. The canned “results” you get from voting in the O are witty but ultimately unsatisfying and even hypocritical: they are just as “controlling” of my access to information as Walsh seems to believe labels are. Maybe Love/Hate starts a few conversations among visitors, but it doesn’t create one with the museum: this says to me that David Walsh doesn’t really care how visitors vote (though he has threatened to remove the most popular works from display: a very clever PR move), and certainly hasn’t enabled commenting or questioning in the O. Nicolaas Earnshaw was also distressed by the “Pokemon” effect of feeling compelled to ‘collect all the artworks’ as he went through the galleries. I just wanted the networked system to use that viewing and bookmarking data to show me heat maps of activity in the museum, and, like Twitter, maybe help me meet someone with similar likes and dislikes.
PUNT: The more you know about something or someone, the harder it is to summarize your feelings into simple Love/Hate dichotomies. But we all have to start somewhere with new encounters; maybe Love and Hate is a nice hook, an entrée to thinking about an artwork or art in general when it is new to you? How can thumbs up and down lead to more conversations and a deeper learning opportunity for visitors? MONA has the network and connected devices in place to give us real feedback and turn voting into a real opportunity for engagement; I hope this will be added to future iterations of the O.
The O’s Content
LOVE: Short texts.
HATE: I hate the “artwank” title for content that has actually had some art historical research put into it, and I wouldn’t be surprised if those who wrote the “artwank” content don’t too. I also hate the un-styled text, which makes it uninviting to read, and the LOOONNNG audio messages (up to 7 minutes!). Perhaps unlike Seb Chan, I can’t listen to even a substantive, highly produced audio tour message for more than a minute. Suffering through the waffling and posturing of the artist interviews etc. made me give up on the audio early in my visit.
PUNT: If Art Processors (or others) can develop a platform that allows curators and other content creators, be they museum staff or “citizens,” to get double service out of the content they upload to the mobile guide (e.g. also outputs to wall labels, automatically reformats the collection record, or generates tweets and blog posts) then we may have a winner. Content creators need an easy-to-use platform and workflow that saves them time, rather than generating more work for them – or the mobile guide will remain an optional extra in the museum experience. And maybe we’ll discover that, as at MONA, interpretive tours can be optional because other kinds of content (from label texts to the O’s “Ideas”) are both sufficient and abundant from multiple sources, inside the museum and beyond, once anyone can contribute.
The O’s Technology
LOVE: I love the ubiquitous Wifi, of course, and was super-impressed by the combined Wifi and active RFID technology that gave me a list of nearby artworks on demand. This is exactly the right way to turn the imprecision and variability of radio-based location services into a strength, and we should all learn from this example of designing within the actual limits of a technology rather than for what we hope the technology will do some day (AR, anyone?). The networked mobile guide system also means they know that 340,000 visitors have viewed up to 400 artworks 11 million times through O to date, and that 600,000 tours have been created on the devices (some people do multiple tours in a single visit, or are repeat visitors). The videos’ soundtracks synch seamlessly with the O thanks to high bandwith streaming that supports simulcasting for up to 1,300 visitors. The best technology is invisible, and the O team largely succeeded in making the device recede into the background so the content and encounter with the artwork could take center stage. The care and attention to the usability of the O was clearly of primary concern: not just the cool factor of the gadget. And the O has the BEST headsets I’ve ever been handed, with retractable cables so you can set them to just the right length for you: like wheels on suitcases, as soon as you experience the retractable cable you can’t believe it wasn’t standard from the invention of headphones.
HATE: We were told, “David wants people to get lost, so wayfinding was deliberately not included in the O.” Suit yourself, but wayfinding has replaced translation as the number one reason I hear for museums wanting mobile services. And why can’t I search the O? Isn’t that the whole point of a smartphone – so I can google (read: learn about) every little question that pops into my head? For that matter, why can’t I use the O on my own phone, or tap into MONA’s Wifi network for my own purposes (like tweeting about my visit)? These are rhetorical questions, and I know the developers have good reasons for these decisions, but I am not sure it’s sustainable to force me to change my mobile habits to use your museum guide.
PUNT: In one important way, MONA is an incredibly conservative museum: it uses technology to require us to go to the museum in person to see the art. You cannot tour the collection online unless you’ve been to Tasmania and used the O. Put this together with the dislike of labels, and a fairly retrograde image begins to emerge of David Walsh’s vision of what a museum should be. But if it’s the experience, rather than the collection, that you care about, maybe that’s just fine.
LOVE: You can’t really separate MONA from its founder and seemingly bottomless pocket, David Walsh. I love that he has spent so much money on creating a first-rate cultural destination. I am certain that more people are having more and meaningful experiences of art thanks to his investment. I also really love that he gives free entry to MONA to his fellow Tasmanians (to be identified by their second heads, etc., the “Getting to MONA” brochure jokes), and hires some 90 locals to staff visitor services. This investment pays off in both the quality of the visit and in numbers for the museum and the island: lots of repeat visits from locals mean that they make up over half the visitorship of the museum, and visitorship remains constant year-round, even in the winter months. The University of Tasmania is doing a study of the economic impact of MONA on the local community, and that data will be of interest to all museums.
HATE: His voice. Arrogant, controlling wanker, to use his term, trying to be cooler and more iconoclastic than anyone else. And he is a disingenuous hypocrite, patronizing us that we have more freedom to have a “personal experience” in his museum than in others. I soon found the outrageousness as smelly as Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca machines, and more tiresome.
PUNT: Although the voice of MONA, which is the voice of “David Walsh,” is a very specific and carefully manufactured one (young, hip, privileged, irreverent), a lot of people clearly have a great time there. Maybe because we all secretly aspire to be self-gratifying despots of our own domain. Whatever the reason, there is a really important lesson for museums here: becoming more bland and generic – striving for inoffensiveness – does not broaden appeal, but having a very specific voice and brand can. I don’t think this is about authenticity. We are more than willing to suspend disbelief and ignore the smell of BS in order to enjoy the yarn Walsh spins us, at least for a while.
- Nancy Proctor (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Digital Editor of Curator: The Museum Journal.
© 2011 The California Academy of Sciences