Open to Talent

The making of MONA

David Walsh, founder of the Museum of Old and New Art, discovered when writing the all-important notes, or take-home messages, to attach to his exhibits that no label fitted MONA

Party-goers: MONA is very focused on what visitors
bring to the party, says Professor Franklin.

By Peter Cochrane

Just as there's more to the Museum of Old and New Art than meets the eye, there is more to the making of MONA then has been reported.

As Professor Adrian Franklin noted in his recent public lecture, too many cultural commentators have looked for the museum's origins in what they took to be the dark recesses of "[founder] David Walsh's clever, wonderfully twisted and freakish mind – for surely only a freak would collect artworks of such extreme bad taste".

"Perhaps MONA is just a rather smart makeover of the freak show for the 21st Century, albeit in a rather smart fairground setting," he suggests.

Professor Franklin heads up a multi-institutional, four-year research study which seeks in part to understand where MONA came from, how it was created and why it is so popular. One of the spin-offs from this ongoing project is a book, The Making of MONA. Within these pages, the curators, designers and other experts who worked quietly for six years before the museum's opening in January 2011, architects Fender Katsalidis and the Brand MONA team – "loud but they didn't give much away"– all get their dues. Even Walsh's cats, who unwittingly played a part in this extraordinary story, are included.

"MONA is not a freak show – if it's not properly a museum, it is a cool art scene where we would all like to hang out," Professor Franklin said. "It is very focused on what visitors bring to the party, how they respond to the art."

The book begins with Professor Franklin's recounting of the "accidental" establishment of MONA's precursor on professional gambler Walsh's newly acquired Moorilla Estate on the Berriedale peninsula.

"Walsh needed a place to hold upmarket functions, to increase revenue from the vineyard, but he also needed a place to keep his valuable collection away from his cats – one of his very valuable pieces had been broken by a cat.

"Somewhat eccentrically, he decided to combine those two things: a function building and a museum in Sir Roy Grounds' 1950s courtyard house that was then, in 1999, standing empty and destined for an ignominious future as a warehouse."

Thus was born the Moorilla Museum of Antiquities, which existed to 2005, when they started building MONA.

"Without even trying, this museum became a clone of museums everywhere – a sterilising, anaesthetising environment where the objects were for visitors to learn about and learn about only.

"Walsh threw himself into writing the all- important, all dominating labels for the objects on display – the take-home messages."

"MONA is not a freak show – if it's not properly a museum, it is a cool art scene where we would all like to hang out in."

In 1889 George Brown Goode, then Director of the Smithsonian Institution, said a museum should be understood as a collection of instructive labels illustrated by well selected specimens. Thus did the harmless-looking label become the dominant, organising focus of museums, something that also ordered visitor experience.

"The same penny dropped for David Walsh when he realised that the labels prevented visitors from seeing and taking due notice of the exciting objects he had collected," Professor Franklin said. He wanted visitors to experience the same emotional excitement that he felt as a collector on first encountering these objects. The labels made sure they never did.

"Walsh looked on disappointed as visitors buzzed beelike from label to label, just as they did in the major galleries. Whereas the same objects had once produced gasps of wonderment among guests to his house, visitors to his museum were rendered practically unconscious by his carefully composed wall labels."

It was a major lesson confirmed by his observations of guests at evening functions. Walsh and his staff noticed a huge difference between people who viewed the antiquities during a day trip and those who saw them at a night function.

"The function crowd didn't come to be educated, they came for pleasure – particularly for the wine, food, music and dancing – and for the vineyard's Arcadian setting. Such events produced heightened emotion and excitement rather than quiet museum decorum."

The labels would have to go.

The Making of MONA book coverThe Making of MONA is published by Penguin (hardback, $59.99).