New Museology at MONA and an idea

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As a graduate of a Masters in Museum and Gallery Education I am always interested in galleries and museum spaces that try something new. I grew up in the house of a lecturer in design who used to take me to gallery openings and exhibitions, my first degree in Classics saw me recovering from my student hangovers in the cool rooms of the British Museum and losing my self in the John Soane. It is very much ‘my world’ and the much of Stretch’s activity in the past has involved museums and galleries, trying to normalise the museum world, trying to take people not at home in that space to the gallery space, trying to examine the value of collections and stories.

I am fascinated by the story of MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art. Built by a philanthropist and benefactor who made all his money from gambling, it is in fact a brilliant personal collection. David Walsh is a playful intellectual and what he has created certainly turns on its head traditional ideas of museology. From Enlightenment Thinking we still have a the notion that galleries and museums are a place to ‘better yourselves’ and learn ernest things (even about art) – and much as they try, even places like Tate Modern still have this feeling, filing past the ‘must see’ exhibition becomes a chore – fatigue sets in easily – buy the postcard and the fridge magnet and get out quickly.


It helps that MONA is set out in a remote promontory in Tasmania, this obviously effects my visitor experience, and that the sun is shining. From beginning to end of the trip there is feeling of specialness, it is fun, I am being spoilt. The ferry terminal and the boats are owned by MONA and are painted and playful with music, a smart food and drink bar  and ‘art’ and sculpture around the decks. The entrance to the gallery is dramatic, a stone stair case up the hill with striking sculptures at the top. The gallery itself is like a set from a James Bond film, the classy bad guy would live here – in his remote underground bunker. The art is set underground in a three tiered basement cut into the rock. Huge walls of exposed rock create passageways and smart champagne bars. It’s sexy and exciting. David Walsh has apparently collected art around the subjects of sex and death, but this pretty much covers everything. There is no particular order, older Egyptian Tombs and Roman death masks sit along side a Damien Hirst. Some of the art is challenging to say the least, 70 plaster cast vaginas line up along a wall, a suicide bomber in dark chocolate and even a machine that processes food, mimicking exactly our metabolism and producing excrement that smells, well like our excrement. It is not for every one, I heard a lot of commentary from visitors about ‘that not being art’ – but for me I found a lot of the work arresting and beautiful, films, waterfalls, whole rooms given up to a whim. I especially liked the 4 part exploration of a pacific island project by Matthew Briand; boats, films, huts and reconstructions fill a whole gallery – an immersive trip to another world. The whole gallery has a ‘play ground for grown ups’ feel about it – which appeals to me.

I am not usually one to walk around with head phones on listening to the prescribed instructive voice, I prefer instead to have my own dialogue in my head – and perhaps snippets of other peoples conversation. The media tour on offer is the most user friendly device I have encountered, in that you can use it as little or as much as you like. The exhibits have NO WORDS or titles next to them, so you take the ipod touch and press a button and all the works near you come  up on the screen. If you want further information you click on it. There is a brief description. If you want the full story you press the ‘art wank’ button and get the full artists statement. I know, I know, a bit like the ‘arty bollocks generator’  it’s puerile and childish, but it made me laugh. It’s a playful place. There is an art cinema underground onsite that was showing Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet from the National Theatre that day.

The beauty of the iPod tour is that your tour is saved by the machine so everything you looked at, rather than reading about it there and then, you can have your tour emailed to you after the visit and all the art works info there a long with a 3D map of your visit. Genius if you ask me. This was a great use of the technology.

Outside of the gallery there is a tennis court, a trampoline with a view over the cliffs of Tasmania and various impressive sculptures and buildings. Pathways lead to view points with outdoor sculptures to explore. There are a few restaurants, one very smart, one more informal, a vineyard which produces his own wine and few boutique cottages to rent. There is a beautifully manicured lawn and a stage and MONA host regular music events, a festival in January where The Flaming Lips, Kate Tempest and the like are playing. David Walsh has seen the connection with art and music.  This afternoon a jazz bad from Sydney are playing and I enjoy a reasonably priced sparkling rose while watching a few tame ducks and chickens strut around. I am in heaven – hedonists playground. I really admire the bringing together of the Dionysian ethos of sensuality, spontaneity,  wine and food with the art.

MONA is making museum history in that a visitors tour last for an average of 6 times longer than other galleries. The average calculated gaze in big galleries, MOMA and Tate included, is around 32 seconds per work – in an 100 museum wide American study people last 20 minutes in a gallery. This has a festival feel, people come for the day, two days even.

So, how do I feed this gallery-crush into my work and my thoughts on art and marginalised groups?  I was having good think as I leafed through the book I bought in the shop on the sunny lawn. My interest in David Walsh grew, always a collector, a little bit ‘aspie’ the nerdy guy – has a lot of great things to say about art.

“I definitely feel that art plays a crucial role in society. Art is a critic and a crusader. It is a social conscience and a social barometer…Art is an extremely efficient communicator of ideas because it utilises all of the tools which the non-conscious mind can engage the outside world – mood and emotion, feeling and thought” 

This is something I am feeling more and more, that art is the place for difficult discussions and topics to be explored. Art as a communicator of ideas. The complexities of incarceration, isolation and outsider ideas can be expressed so efficiently through the arts, in my opinion.

Some of the reasoning behind the design of the space detailed in the book explains that it is designed to ‘transport people’ – literally, it adapts elements from ritual spaces and practices because Walsh wanted his art to inspire and transform. He wanted to create a space where people were receptive to challenge and change. Now we’re talking! Not just a transfer of information, but exuberant art in a temple-like precinct and approach, ‘capturing and recreating radical carnival traditions’. Cultural experience as a transformative experience is very much in line with Stretch and my own ethos – and making things FUN makes the change, the learning, the journey much easier.


Musing on all this I came up with an idea. Continuing my theme of ‘Tips for Michael Gove’ I thought ‘Wouldn’t it be a great idea to turn Pentonville into a massive art museum?’ A global attraction, a permanent home for outside art. Giving back to a community – a place where transformation and change can take place. A place to change the status of outside art and do something for the people of the UK – all the people of the UK – rather than selling it off as real estate. The lofty wings would make an exciting and dramatic back drop to exciting and dramatic art from marginalised communities. Art that can be taken seriously in a city centre multi-million pound facility. Art that challenges and arrests and asks questions and is difficult and fun all at the same time. It would be perfect. Do you think he will go for it?


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