The ‘O’ in Mona

March 30, 2011 § 6 Comments

Last week I visited Mona – the Museum of Old and New Art, which recently opened in Berridale, Tasmania, Australia. Mona is extraordinary for a number of reasons, not least the story of its creation by professional gambler David Walsh, but here I just wanted to relate my impressions of The O, the mobile device given to all visitors who walk through Mona’s doors.

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Just inside the unassuming entrance to Mona I was introduced to The O, an iPod touch with a Mona branded protective case. In a quick group lesson we learned how there are no labels to be found anywhere on the walls of the museum, and that these devices provided access to information about the art. We were also given a pair of Mona-branded headphones, which have a retractable cord to avoid tangle problems, and the museum visitor-guide brochure. The front-of-house team made The O seem easy to use, and I happily hung it around my neck as I descended a spiral staircase into the museum.

The O

I had no idea where I was going or what was going to see, and spent the first 30 minutes marveling more at the excavated gallery spaces, than the art.  When I did start to notice the work around me, I didn’t feel the need to use The O immediately. I just wanted to orientate myself in the space and look.  Surprisingly, I caught myself glancing around for non-existent labels, like phantom limbs. It’s confronting to realise how ingrained my museum behaviours are, and it felt deliciously liberating to have them subverted.

Eventually I got around to the business of plugging into The O. I clicked on the pink cross, the device used geolocation to position me in the museum, and returned a list of works nearby. I made my selection, and received a simple summary screen with a thumbnail of the work.

The options on the screen included:

o    Voting on whether I +LOVE or xHATE the work: This was good fun, when I chose to love or hate something a screen returned delivering stats in amusing ways to show how many agreed with my choice. It is also an opportunity for Mona to collect some data about me as a visitor, which in the end made me a little self-conscious about my choices.

o    Artwank: Text in a formal curatorial style. Worthy stuff, but I was having too much fun working it out for myself. Don’t get me wrong, I like a good artwank, however in this context it was too hard to read on the small screen, and my eyes began to glaze over.

o    Gonzo: This is more like it. Personal musings on the art from Mona’s owner David Walsh. He is funny, smart, and his conversational tone was much better suited for delivery on a mobile device.

o    Ideas: Perfect little text bytes to take you in unexpected directions.

o    Audio: In the gallery space I found the audio hard to engage with. The recording was noisy, and the poor quality made it a deal breaker. A good solution would be to have the audio on the Mona website, where I could access it from home. Many museums and galleries offer this feature, but Mona is yet to.

Once I had looked at a couple of works on The O, a message appeared to tell me I could save my tour and access it later online. All I had to do was enter my email address, confirm it, and I was done. This process was a little misleading. It gave the impression that I would be able to access all the content on The O on the Mona website after I had left the museum. As it turned out, this wasn’t the case. As I have already explained, there is no post-visit access to audio, and to unlock extra content online you need to have accessed the specific work on The O.

Another point of frustration was that the content is locked up by the geolocation IA. If I moved away from a work and reset my location, the content from the previous location disappeared, and could only be accessed again if I moved back within range of the work. I am not sure why there needs to be so much locking up of content. It seems to be out of kilter with the spirit of sharing that makes Mona free to enter, and attractive to people who would normally run a mile from an art museum visit.

As I walked around I found myself using The O intermittently. In one interesting instance I was sitting and listening to the Last riot 2 video installation, while reading on The O about James Angus’ Truck Corridor, which I had just walked past. The effect was like a mashup – a new experience made possible by The O. I enjoyed the loud, energetic clash, and it pretty much sums my whole visit. I eventually emerged into the late-afternoon sun feeling altered and elated, perhaps even a little in love with all things Mona.

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The O app was fun, addictive, easy to navigate and provided a seamless wi-fi enabled user-experience. Some of the content could be improved – and set free – but it’s early days yet. Perhaps even more interesting is that I liked not using The O. It’s existence allowed the labels to be ripped off the walls of the art museum, leaving the work without obvious instructions or signifiers. This shone a bright light upon the preconceived ideas I bring to any exhibition space, and how without them my unguided response to an object might be magically different.

My visit to Mona was a delight, and challenged me to engage with the space and art in unexpected ways. Mona did not want to dictate my experience. In fact, I was encouraged to get lost, explore and learn in my own way. The O device was my compass, but I was not forced to use it in any prescribed fashion. It was up to me to take it or leave it, and I appreciated the choice. Sadly, my visit to the website post visit wasn’t so satisfying, but I’m sure that side of things will evolve with user feedback.

If anyone else out there has had a chance to visit Mona and use The O, I’d be interested to know how your experiences compare.

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