MONA – a cultural phenomenon
Anyone who has visited Tasmania in the past 10 years is highly likely to have visited MONA, the museum of old and new art in Hobart.
Whilst many will be aware of the backstory to David Walsh, the private collector who established MONA, most probably don’t know much about how and why it has become one of the most successful museums anywhere in the world.
The Owner and his collection.
David Walsh made his fortune gambling. A gifted mathematician, he developed algorithms that allowed him to bet successfully on games or events that had an extremely high chance of success, but which only provided small dividends. He realised that the key to making serious money was to scale up the volume of low-risk low yield bets placed.
Joining forces with a wealthy business partner, they established a phenomenally successful global online betting consortium.
Having achieved enormous wealth by his thirties, David’s childhood passion for collecting was reignited and he began purchasing rare antiquities from around the world.
Acknowledged as being “on the spectrum” and displaying common Asperger’s character traits of genius, weirdness and unpredictability, David’s collection developed into an eclectic mix of exotic pieces that some consider to be in extremely bad taste.
Over time David’s collecting interests changed from a fascination with antiquities to Modern art. There were however two predominant themes that became evident in his collecting, a fascination with sex and death.
As his collection continued to expand, it outgrew his Hobart home and he needed somewhere larger to store his treasures. This sowed the seed for establishing a museum to display his extensive collection of valuable, rare, and delicate objects.
In 1995 he purchased two adjoining wineries on the western shore of the Derwent River.
One of these properties, Moorilla Estate, had two 1950’s era houses designed by one of Australia’s foremost modernist Architects, Sir Roy Grounds.
Having designed the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) and Hobart’s Wrest point Casino, it is quite fitting that one of Grounds’ homes ultimately be converted into a museum and gallery funded from the proceeds of gambling.
The original “courtyard” house was located on the high point of the site overlooking the river, the second “round” house was also overlooking the river but set downhill several hundred metres away.
The courtyard house was converted into a function space displaying his antiquities and named the Moorilla Museum of Antiquities – MMoA.
The evolution of MONA
David’s hands on experience in presenting his personal collection to public view at MMoA made him increasingly aware of the deficiencies in typical museum design.
MMoA was based on generic museum design principles, the building interiors providing an understated but elegant white backdrop to the pieces on display.
It was well accepted that this clinical neutral setting allowed the greatest legibility for the black text on printed labels used to explain details of the object or artwork on display.
Over time David recognised that there were fundamental problems with this setting.
He had originally displayed pieces from his collection in his own home for emotional and aesthetic effect.
Observing the difference in behaviour between day tripping museum visitors and guests at MMoA functions, often celebratory occasions accompanied by alcohol, he concluded that enjoyment of his collection was not necessarily dependant on understanding the background by reading about it. Instead, visitors could appreciate the pieces in their own way, letting them “speak” for themselves.
He had also experimented with mixing objects from different periods and places rather than grouped together in classes or genres.
These learnings established the fundamental principles for the design of MONA.
Most museums clearly segregate eating and drinking activities far away from valuable displays to avoid the potential for mishaps and damage. As the sole owner of this collection, David was not beholden to these rules and was prepared to explore different more playful ways of exhibiting his prized pieces for maximum viewer enjoyment.
This was to be the guiding principle for the design of MONA – a new anti-museum.
By the time he committed to building MONA in 2003, David had established a large team of curators and designers. They undertook extensive research visiting successful museums around the world.
Nonda Katsalidis, principal of renown Melbourne architectural practice Fender Katsalidis, had recently designed his beach house, and his firm was engaged to design the museum.
It was decided to build it underground cut into the hillside between the two existing residences which would be retained and incorporated within the design.
Excavation began in 2006, over a year before the design brief was established to define the museum’s key features and attributes. With a 5-year construction time frame, the architecture evolved gradually as the branding, purpose, and exhibition methodologies developed.
One of the fundamental original design principles was for the architecture to be neutral, so as not to distract from the exhibits. Burying the building was intended to facilitate that.
The design involved excavating under the courtyard house which was to become the main entry to the underground museum.
The waterfront cliffs were then carved away exposing a 525m long sandstone wall extending from the crest of the hill down to river shore level. This was to be retained as a feature, however extensive geotechnical engineering was required to stabilise the crumbly and fissured stone which is dusty and leaks. Hardly ideal for a museum, but this feature was considered integral to the finished result.
The building is constructed primarily of concrete and steel, and the interiors intentionally left raw and unclad, another reference to the anti-museum aesthetic eschewing the use of generic white painted plasterboard found in most galleries around the world.
Externally the roof over the buried galleries below undulates down several different terraced levels following the natural landform between the two original houses.
Whilst most of the building is buried underground, sculptural architectural elements protrude above ground level using predominantly rusty Corten steel and exposed concrete.
This references the brutalist architectural style of many other modern galleries built around the world in the 60’s and 70’s.
The building was eventually completed and opened to the public in January 2011.
In keeping with David Walsh’s principle of developing an anti-museum, the visitor experience is quite unique.
Arrival is either via water from Mona’s own ferry service which provides transfers from central Hobart, or by road.
Ferry passengers disembark and must climb 99 steps up to the entry plaza, symbolic of the final leg of a pilgrimage to temples of the classical world. The steps are intentionally oversized establishing a pace like a slow procession approaching a reverential monument.
Entry to the museum is through the original courtyard house, although this is not at all obvious since the building is largely concealed behind a false facade clad in metallic mirrors reflecting the sculptural terraces beyond.
Once inside you are immediately directed to a spiral staircase surrounding a central lift that takes you down into the depths of the building to a bar at the lower ground level. Patrons are free to purchase a drink and take it with them as they embark on their exploration of the museum, establishing immediately a sense of informality and fun.
Freed of the need to label the exhibits, the galleries are dark, with strategic lighting illuminating each piece. An app on your mobile phone identifies the artwork in your proximity and provides you with the ability to find out more about each piece if you are interested.
The museum is designed to get you lost. There are no signs or directions, visitors are encouraged to roam and explore at their leisure. Whilst there is an obvious path through connected spaces initially, this eventually splits at various points allowing you to choose your own direction or to change levels. Bearings can be readily established through the artwork, or recognition of sculptural architectural elements within the spaces like floating stairs, bridges, tunnels and walkways.
Linking all levels is the exposed sandstone cliff that allows views back to the bar and the starting point.
Whilst initially the architecture was intended to be a backdrop to the exhibits, as the design developed in conjunction with the exhibition strategy, the two became interwoven and work seamlessly in tandem to create the overall experience.
MONA’s unorthodox approach to museum design with a focus on entertainment and fun has been a huge success. Visitor’s typically spend six times longer in MONA than the average museum, with many enjoying more than 5 hours viewing the exhibits and exploring the building.
It has even established a new phrase in Tasmania, the MONA effect. This refers to the dramatic increase in tourism from both mainland Australian and international visitors travelling to Tasmania primarily to visit the museum, before staying on to explore more of the island.
You can view a video from our recent visit providing an overview of the MONA experience https://vimeo.com/565164871