Monday, September 03, 2012

Cabinet paper

When you first step into Hobart’s $224 million über art attraction MONA (Museum of Old and New Art) you can feel the difference. This is a radical departure from your usual art museum. The white cube has been banished in favour of darkened rooms with spotlit objects and complex layouts, and there is not a label or wall text to be seen. And then it dawns on you. For all its high tech trappings this is a return to old school museum display and the cabinet of curiosities.
The hand of private collector David Walsh is all over his museum especially in the material previously known as labels. Although MONA prides itself on having no labels or explanatory panels, the usual museum verbiage is not far away. It’s been tipped onto a hard drive to be accessed by an iTouch given to all visitors. Branded as The O . And Walsh, in a move that saves MONA from being what could easily have become lugubrious, plays the humour card. Look up Walsh’s comments on a baby monkey skeleton sitting in a chair (it’s that sort of place) and you get, “This is so cute, look at his little hands resting on the chair.’ That’s the first time. If you check it out again it comes up “ “This is so gross, look at his little hands resting on the chair.’
Walsh also uses the The O to undercut his critics (and there are some despite the runaway popular success of MONA). Commenting on one work Walsh mentioned he had prosopagnosia (an inability to recognize people by their faces) which in turn prompted art critic Christopher Allen to bring out his stick. “It may explain why a lot of the works he has chosen are rather coarse and obvious in meaning, and why the paintings and other two-dimensional works are mostly mediocre”. Walsh immediately added this to The O commentary. Nice.
So MONA is very, very popular, people stay for a very, very long time and the experience is brilliantly personalised. You can check out what Mary looked at by going to and entering (I forgot to ‘LOVE’ it – you can press a love or hate button on your ‘O’ for each work - but my most favourite work was in fact Lucio Fontana’s Spatial concept).
The museum profession is watching MONA closely of course. The success of its Google-like gathering of objects and DIY connoisseurship suggests a way to attract audiences by valuing personal responses over institutional expertise. As Walsh says himself about looking at MONA's latest exhibition Theatre of the world “the less you know about art the better you are off.” If MONA gets to lead the way, it’s going to be a game changer.
Image: the baby monkey skeleton on a chair. By the way, if you look up the commentary on the work a third time you get "The Victorians were so weird."