Fresh & New(er)

discussion of issues around digital media and museums by Seb Chan

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Experiencing The O at MONA – a review

October 27th, 2011 by Seb Chan

A lot has been written about the Museum of Old and New Art and I’m not going to rehash any of that. Instead I’m going to look at their mobile guide – The O – which is provided to every visitor and included in the admission price.

Here some of the fleet of 1300 Os sit charging in enormous custom charging bays where they can also be updated.

The O is an iOS App that runs on an iPod Touch comes ready to run and with a quality pair of Audio Technica headphones. Developed by Art Processors, The O is described thus;

Wall labels are at once didactic and limited. They inhibit imagination. Squinted at through a dozen huddled heads, they are barely useful tools for learning, much less free thinking, or a private appreciation of the objects they describe.

The O solves these problems. It delivers information in a way that enhances the visitor’s experience of the gallery, and enables curators and exhibition designers to display the works the way they want. Museum researchers can present the best, most relevant textual, visual and audio content at their discretion. It provides information on visitor viewing habits, trending and satisfaction via integrated statistical reports. Above all, The O is an intimate, intuitive interface of the learning and autonomous response.

None of this would matter if it was a pain to use.

I was very impressed by the ‘technology concierge’ skills of the ticketing staff – they run you through the basics of the App and the hardware as they sell you your ticket and set you off on your way. Sitting beside the cash register is a graphic clearly explaining each of the main interface screens of the O as well. I’ve never seen this level of ‘scaffolding’ happen in other museums and the deftness with which visitors are set off on their way quickly is a testament to their staff training (and acceptance amongst these staff of the value of the O itself).

Descending into the museum itself you launch the O and you are off. Pop up instructions help you through the basic App operations and after a while you are prompted to enter your email address (and optional country) to ‘save’ your journey to the MONA website. Once this is done there are no further prompts and even when, as I did, returned after lunch and was given a different O device, the final ‘saved tour’ seemed to accurately aggregate my whole visit (over the two different devices).

At its most basic level The O replaces wall labels. Entering a space you simply click ‘Update’ and, using wifi triangulation a proprietary real-time system (see comments), the device provides a list, with thumbnails, of objects ‘near’ you. This works surprisingly well despite the split levels and bulk showcases of coins and other small objects in some areas. The scrollable list relieves the technology of the difficult task of ‘exactly positioning the visitor’ whilst at the same time emphasising the visitor’s own agency in choosing what they are ‘seeing’. (I think this is going to be an increasingly important balance as location and compass headings give mobile devices better granularity at guessing what you are looking at).

However the most impressive part of The O is the content – not the technology.

The O provides simple label text and an image for every object. I was disappointed that the images weren’t zoomable, however on most objects there was also a curator’s piece amusingly titled Art Wank. These were short, very accessible and gave useful context and background without overdoing it. A slightly smaller subset of objects are augmented with options called ‘Ideas’, ‘Gonzo’, and ‘Media’. It is in these three areas that The O really differentiates itself from every other museum mobile App or guide I’ve experienced.

‘Ideas’ is simply a set of provocations – or talking points. Some are quotes, others are just statements. One of the many ‘delighters’ I discovered on The O visiting with my companion (with her own O), was that often there were multiple ‘Ideas’ and that very rarely would we both get the same one at the same time. This gave us prompts to talk to each about the objects we were looking at – ensuring that sociality was not eroded by every visitor being glued to their own screens.

‘Gonzo’ is almost mostly responses or stories from MONA’s owner David Walsh. Sometimes these are stories about the acquisition of various objects, other times they are hilarious, for want of a better word, ‘rants’ about the artist, a style, or a moment. Like the ‘Ideas’ they make great talking points.

‘Media’ are short audio files – interviews with the artist and others. Some objects also have songs by Damien Cowell who was commissioned to record them ‘about’ certain works.

The interviews blew me away.

Unlike every other ‘museum tour’ the audio interviews are completely raw and lo-fi. This shocked me – and I loved it. Almost all the interviews that I listened to sounded like they were recorded in a noisy cafe – and in more than a few the interviewee’s mobile phone rang in the middle of the recording (usually followed by an apology ‘sorry I’m in a meeting’). This made it so approachable and friendly – and, importantly, felt candid – like I was there with the artist. This also reminded me that the quality of the content always trumps the fidelity of the recording.

‘Loving’ or ‘hating’ objects is possible too, and doing so gives you a simple quantitative statistic on the objects popularity amongst other visitors. I did wish that this recommended me other things to go and see. I also missed any kind of search functionality – I understand that this is probably because ‘searching’ is the exact kind of intentionality that MONA is trying to disrupt, instead forcing you to be in the moment – but it was frustrating when there were certain works I knew about that I wanted to locate.

Leaving MONA, the headphones and The O were given back to the friendly staff at the door. Arriving back home, there in my inbox was an email from MONA linking me to their website where I could browse through the objects that I’d seen – after supplying the email address I used to register), and find out which I’d missed.

The post-visit web experience is interesting in that it requires a MONA visit (and user registration through The O) to get access. On one hand this might seem exclusionary – and is definitely an option that is really now only open to private museums with no public mandate – but on the other hand this did re-emphasise the importance of connecting the physical experience of MONA and its works with the online experience. And, that I couldn’t access the objects of the museum before my visit (beyond a few selected pieces), meant that I was more open to exploring than targeting only things I was interested in when I was in the galleries.

On the web you have access to all the same content you could get on The O – the audio, the text, but rather disappointingly only the same small size of image. Your path through MONA is visualised and able to be played back on a timeline. I’m not sure that this adds any navigation ‘value’ but it does re-emphasise the physicality of visiting MONA, its unique spatial construct, and its primacy in understanding and experiencing ‘the works’ inside.

This is one of the few examples of where a museum website actually enhances the post-visit experience by connecting it concretely back to the physical experience (and does so be explicitly preventing pre-visit planning and expectations).

There’s a couple of minor quirks (primitive audio player controls especially) with The O but overall it sets a new benchmark in terms of integrated interpretative devices.

I do wonder, though, how much it relies upon a few uniquely MONA attributes – its entirely private vision (versus public duty/mission), the design of the museum itself which prevents any other form of internet access (it is underground), and the tabula rasa upon which it has been able to construct its content all at once (no legacy material or practices to deal with)?

And, how the aggregate usage data – the loves/hates, the pieces that are most/least viewed, the contours of content – is used will be fascinating to see.

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