MONA Museum exhibit in Australia

The Art of Place: Lessons in placemaking learned from a Tasmanian museum.

I am not a fan of gambling. I am, however, a fan of the visual arts. I had never thought I would discuss the two activities in the same breath—that was until MONA, the Museum of New and Old Art, came into existence. Founded in 2011 by Tasmanian millionaire David Walsh, MONA is the largest privately funded museum in Australia. This cultural tour de force has transformed the economy and economic landscape of the city it’s within—Hobart, Tasmania. It’s an excellent case study in placemaking, compliments of the calculated risk taking of a man who made his fortune in professional gambling.

MONA is my favorite museum because it’s more than just a museum—it’s a destination.

Since its launch, more than 1.5 million people have graced MONA’s spaces. That’s 30 times the population of Hobart. I’ve visited three times and each experience has been inspiring, challenging, eye-opening and dynamic. It really is ‘subversive adult Disneyland’, in the words of founder David Walsh.

The museum’s design disrupts the traditional museum architectural model.

It’s a long journey until you actually see the museum collection. Built on an historical site, MONA is predominantly underground—no windows, no specific path through and very little wayfinding info. Designed by Fender Katsalidis Architects, the interiors have a raw structure with no plasterboards. “We didn’t want to create a neutral space for the art, but an active, living one—a space the art responds to,” says James Pearce, Project Architect for MONA.

MONA answers the fundamental questions of placemaking with a tongue-in-cheek earnestness.

For the first few years of business, the museum didn’t advertise. The MONA brand was no brand. A target audience didn’t dictate the marketing strategy—it was more personal than that. In an entry for the blog The Mona Effect, Elizabeth Pearce, Senior Writer for MONA, explained, “We should describe the events and products as we would to our most intelligent friend: what information do they need to make a decision for themselves whether or not they want to partake?”

It’s a master-planned museum with a sliding scale of amenities.

The museum’s commitment to an authentic MONA voice has created a cult-like following and attracted thousands of visitors to its two yearly festivals; MOFO in summer and Dark MOFO in winter. And the effect MONA has had on the tourism industry in Tasmania is now affectionately known as ‘The MONA Effect.’ As I said, it’s not just a museum, it’s a destination, so here’s a quick outline of the things you can do onsite outside of the museum spaces:

  • Have a cocktail at Void Bar, located…underground
  • Take a tour of the onsite winery, Moorilla
  • Eat seasonal local produce at The Source restaurant
  • Have a tasting of Moorilla wine and Moo Brew beer at the Cellar Door
  • If you need more wine, there’s the Wine Bar
  • Experience The Golden Hour, dining under James Turrell’s artwork Armana
  • Listen to live music every weekend on the lawn
  • Catch an art film in the cinema
  • Buy books and crudely shaped soap in the gift shop
  • Sip on a latte in the museum café
  • Stay in the MONA pavilions…and…

…instead of the usual gallery membership, MONA offers an Eternity Membership (the Cinerarium) that includes access to exhibitions, events and collateral plus they will cremate you and place your ashes in an urn in the MONA galleries. MONA has you covered from your first step onsite to your last breath on this earth. Now that’s great customer service.

MONA is a unique situation where architecture, commerce and culture have been dictated by the museum. 

David Walsh didn’t wait until he had an audience—he made one. What we can learn from MONA is that the power of place lies in its ability to make us feel as though it would be empty without us.

 

Marion Piper is a copywriter at Grenhaus. Originally from Australia, she’s obsessed with the visual nature of text and the textual nature of visuals.

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