Australia: MONA’s “The O” post-visit website

The “O” Part Two
This is the last post on my recent visit to the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart, Tasmania. The first post dealt with my overall impressions of this groundbreaking private museum. The second post covered the “O”, the customized iPod Touch-based guide given to each visitor to MONA. This post will specifically address the post-visit experience – what happens when you get home to find an email from MONA.

Logging in

What you see when you go to the MONA site.

MONA’s website is a bit of a tease. You can’t really get much about the MONA experience from looking at the site. They taken Koven Smith’s advice to heart and haven’t made another Conestoga Wagon for the 21st century. Their site has a very unusual purpose and audience. It exists to allow you to recall your visit to MONA in great detail. If you haven’t been, the site will be of little use to you. And the looping soundtrack might make you cranky. The merits and problems associated with this exclusivity are certainly worthy of discussion, but I found it a bit refreshing that they had chosen their audience, and it wasn’t the usual “everyone who might be interested in our collecting area, plus more people every year”  audience. Their website is not an analogue to the physical structure – it is something completely different. It’s a record of your relationship with MONA.

Visualizing a visit

Your visit presented to you in map form.

When you input the email address you entered when you got the device, you are confronted with this screen (as long as you’re not looking at it on an iDevice, hence the delay in me getting round to it) which presents you with a wireframe map of MONA, a list of the visits you’ve made, and the ability to toggle between looking at the works you saw on that visit, and those you didn’t.

The map
After reading Seb’s review, I was really keen to see the map. From a content creator’s standpoint, the ability to know what objects people were looking at, and to aggregate those data to make real heatmaps of where people were going in the museum sounded like Nirvana. From a visitor standpoint, I wanted to see how well it recalled my visit to me, after a period of weeks.  When we were at MONA, I was a bit taken aback to find they weren’t using the data they were collecting much. It’s still early days for them I suppose, but if I were there, I’d be crawling all over those data, just to see what I could learn from them.

From a visitor standpoint, I found it worked really well. The map is rotatable (though not zoomable) and the dots each represent an artwork you called up on the O. They are timestamped, so you can playback your visit and watch how you moved through the space. Given how lost I felt in MONA, it was a surprise to see how regular the floorplan is. Clicking on any dot, brings up the icon of the artwork and title, plus all it’s O content. I like the way you can build a mental model of your visit with pretty high fidelity. The use of images was helpful, since I seem to have trouble recalling titles from this visit. It might have something to do with there being no label in my visual memory of the artworks. I dunno… Always good to have pictures. I wish they led to bigger ones. One of my biggest disappointments in using the site was not being able to see big, clear images of the art. But more on that later.


Selecting an artwork you studied.

The promise of more
I loved the “Filters” and “Your tours” features of the site, because they both encourage you to think about having a relationship with MONA that lasts longer than one visit. The Filters buttons, presents you with either the list of everything you accessed during your visit (the default) or the list of everything you didn’t access. After reliving my tour in some depth, I found myself going back to see the things I didn’t look at, and thinking “Next time I’m at MONA, I want to…” The same with “Your tours”. It’s not “Your tour”. That use of the plural is the best invitation I’ve seen in a museum webiste. It invites without asking. I could easily imagine a long list of dates I’d been to MONA and imagine comparing my visits over time, what objects I kept going back to, and so on.

Brilliant thus far. But what about the content? What goodies are waiting for me?

Drilling down

I had no idea what kind of content awaited me when I clicked on an object. When I selected one, I got familiar text, and the same choices I’d had on my O. In the case of Candle Describing a Sphere, a piece that had Jen and me riveted, there was an Art Wank, and Audio. No larger image, no different content. Just what was on the O, without even the voting results to tell me how many other visitors loved or hated this piece. I tried a few other pieces and sure enough, all you can get is what you get in the museum.

The content from the O on that object.

The lack of unique content on the website is the O’s greatest lack as far as I’m concerned. Decent images is a close second. At first I was taken aback, but I understand the realities of trying to get something done in time for opening and the need to scope a project appropriately, even if it means launching without all the bells and whistles it might have. And when I look at what MONA have done with the app and the website, they’ve done a lot. I hope they do more in the next version, but what’s there is pretty impressive when you step back and compare it with what a visitor to any other museum on Earth will get at the end of their visit.

I can tell you a lot about what I looked at while in MONA, and I already feel like I need to go back. Those reasons are enough to win them some praise from the rest of us. I can’t wait to see what improvements they make on the system.


  1. The lack of ‘additional’ content (additional to the O) seems to me to not really be a fair ask. Most museums don’t even give you everything that is on the mobile guide on the web! That you can get the video, audio and all the text from the O on the web afterwards is pretty good compared with the rest of the field – where even getting the object labels post-visit as they were in the galleries is virtually impossible (institutionally because they’re written into different ‘systems’ by different ‘departments).

    The exclusivity can also be seen as a social contract between the institution and the visitor – “you come and visit and we’ll trade you a great experience and access to more information you need to enhance that experience”. I think that works well for contemporary art where ‘being there’ really does matter.

    I’d love to see a science or history museum try that same idea. It would be fascinating to see a history museum *really* assert that seeing the stuff and being in its ‘presence’ gives a necessarily greater understanding – greater enough to warrant holding it back until you’d been in its presence.

    (Perhaps we do this already with newly discovered endangered species. We say we’ve discovered them but don’t release details of exactly where so that their ‘preservation through ignorance’ can be maintained.)

    I’m sure that exclusivity builds a huge amount of community support for the institution. Those who’ve been become passionate advocates and ‘protectors’, and the challenge for the institution becomes one of rapidly scaling the admission numbers so that there are more in the community who have been than haven’t. (MONA’s free admission for Tasmanians is a valuable tactic in this regard).


    1. Hey Seb,
      I agree. I think I went in with such expectations that it took me awhile to see their accomplishments. I could see so many ways to expand that experience that it made it hard to appreciate how much they’d already raised the bar until I started writing. That’s a primary reason I blog; it makes me do my thinking properly.

      The idea of the social contract they make with visitors is really intriguing and didn’t really hit me until I’d gone back to the site a couple of times. Must think on it more.


  2. Hi Ed, I have enjoyed reading about your recent Australian adventure, it is nice to get an international perspective on our museums.

    While I was at MONA, I certainly didn’t feel like I wanted to spend too much time viewing all the text, audio and video about each artwork on the ‘o’.

    I think it’s important that you can view the art on-site without having too much background information, and can explore the content further online once you get home. It seems to me that this is the purpose of the ‘o’ and the MONA website (for the visitor) at this stage, and I don’t know if it needs to be anything more?


  3. Great reviews all around – meaning they are thought-provoking for those of us who may never get to visit MONA, but still want to learn from them! Seb’s point that how most of our online data aligns with what is available in the gallery versus what MONA is doing is a good one, and a challenge to us all, I think. It’s fantastic to see a museum really innovating in how it creates a continuum experience from onsite to online. Being in the States I’d know little about the O and MONA if it weren’t for you all writing such interesting reviews – so thanks!


    1. I agree about the importance of people trying out new models. If nothing else, MONA shows a viable model of “doing” museum that is very different from the status quo. I look forward to seeing more.


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