How the curatorial team at Mona uses ‘The O’

Few museum curators can say they write art wank for a living. Jane Clark, the Senior Research Curator at Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art, has been doing it for about a decade.

Jane writes the short and pithy, but otherwise traditional, essays you’ll find on The O, the location-aware experience we created for the museum to help visitors explore the artworks in the cavernous and controversial space.

Jane’s voice has been an important one in the ongoing development of The O. She joined Mona in 2007, around the time we started working on the technology, prior to the museum opening in 2011. Since then, we’ve worked closely with her and the rest of Mona’s curatorial team as their in-house tech resource, ensuring The O delivers what they need, both as a back-of-house tool and a public-facing device for museum visitors.

The O was originally developed to replace wall labels, but the intrinsic role it plays in the unique Mona visitor experience has expanded and morphed curatorially. This year, for the first time, it’s actually part of an exhibition, providing augmented reality experiences for Simon Denny’s Mine.

Simon Denny, Mine, 2019, installation view at Mona
Image Courtesy Mona/Jesse Hunniford

Art Processors sat down with Jane to learn about her involvement in the early development of The O and how the curatorial team at Mona uses the technology.

[This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]

Q. What was your involvement in the early days of The O?

From the very beginning, David Walsh [Mona’s owner] said he didn’t want wall labels. It was his home, more or less. In his small Museum of Antiquities at Moorilla, which was on the site before Mona, he had masses of wall labels. Labels everywhere! He wrote them all, and they were really good. He must have done so much research.

When I arrived in 2007, he’d already started planning the new museum in 2005 with Nonda Katsalidis [founder of architecture firm Fender Katsalidis]. Very early on, they had this idea that it wouldn’t be cluttered with labels. So we had to figure out what to do instead. 

During that first year, the idea of something electronic came about. Initially, we thought that would mean audio. But quite quickly it became clear that it would be more of a visual technology. I met Nic Whyte and Tony Holzner, co-founders of Art Processors, that year. My role, initially, was giving them sample “label” texts for the artworks. I drafted these in a format essentially based on what I’d done years earlier while working as a curator at the NGV. But I wanted something much more user-friendly and also something that could work equally across all the kinds of art we display, from antiquities to contemporary.

Q. You write the “art wank” for The O, a moniker that’s intended to be ironic. There are also tabs where visitors can read “Gonzo” reflections on the artworks and, for some objects, there’s the family-friendly “O Minor.” How did that all come about?

One of the reasons David hired me was because he quite liked what I wrote. It wasn’t wanky art-speak. At first, I saw myself writing for The O “as Mona”, not as me. And David said, “Oh, no, you have to sign it with your name. I’m putting my name on what I say in The O. Elizabeth [Pearce, now Senior Writer and Research Curator] will be doing interviews with artists. So you’ve got to put your name on what you write.” 

Once I put my name on The O texts, it meant the audience’s understanding changed from me as a neutral, objective, disembodied voice to the idea that Mona is made up of many different people. And I’m accountable for what I write. 

My role has always covered documenting each artwork carefully and then presenting that information in The O in a way that we think is helpful to visitors. Not telling them what to think or being particularly didactic. But my sense has always been: if I didn’t know anything about an artwork and I felt confronted by it, what would I like to know? Or, what would be helpful? Or, what would be interesting or funny? Or, sometimes, provocative. Then I put that in The O.

From the beginning, we’ve envisaged we’re writing for people who have already looked at the artwork. When you walk around other museums, you see people moving from label to label: it’s something that annoys me. I loved the idea that people at Mona would actually (1) look at the artwork, (2) think whatever they liked about it, but then, (3) wonder, “Oh! What actually is it?”; and then have a look on The O. The other wonderful thing is that they can save their visit, so texts in The O can be quite long — intended to be re-read and thought about later.

Q. The O plays a key role in the Mona experience for visitors. Front-of-house relies on it for up-to-date information about staff schedules, events, artworks and exhibits. How does the curatorial team use The O?

Our use of The O certainly relates to what Front-of-house needs, so we work with them closely. Before an exhibition opens, I’ll spend time down in the space with Kit [Whyte, operational support at Art Processors] and members of the Front-of-house team. Kit will look at where the location beacons need to be. We decide where any adult warnings or other pop-ups should be seen. Just how the space works with people in it and how Front-of-house will manage that.

Tony Oursler, The Imponderable Archive, 1990s-continuing. Gorillas in Our Midst exhibition
Image courtesy of the artist and MONA/Jesse Hunniford

So, the room containing Tony Oursler’s The Imponderable Archive is an example of liaising with Front-of-house to help them help visitors. The whole room is actually one installation artwork but it’s made up of about 180 items, part of the Gorillas in Our Midst exhibition. Not everything in that room is actually included on The O because there are just too many things: photographs, ephemera and a host of miscellaneous objects displayed quite closely together. So we just picked out highlights; things that seemed to need some explanation. And I gave Front-of-house a printed list of everything that was in the room so that they’d be able to answer visitors’ questions confidently if asked. 

Tony Oursler, The Imponderable Archive, 1990s-continuing. Gorillas in Our Midst exhibition Image courtesy of the artist and MONA/Jesse Hunniford

While I want people to look at the art first, and have the art direct them to The O, Front-of-house would sometimes like The O to guide people through the museum a bit more. So we need to balance both these things. It’s actually more of a challenge now than it was in the early days when only the permanent collection was on view. In the permanent collection, it doesn’t matter at all which route visitors take around the building; whereas now, sometimes with multiple temporary exhibitions, wayfinding can be much more important. 

Sometimes people don’t even realise they’ve entered an exhibition: they choose simply to wander. And that’s fine. But Front-of-house do have a role in traffic management, visitor safety and artwork safety. And of course we do want to make sure that people find and enjoy exhibitions that David may have spent a million dollars or more on (in one case).

So, yes. That’s something we work on. We’re very conscious, I think all the curators are. Front-of-house are the people on the floor, with the visitors, with the art, with the queues, day to day.

Q. The space is constantly changing. Mona in 2011 is very different from what it is today. You just touched on this, but how have you worked with Art Processors with regards to wayfinding and indoor location positioning for The O?

Through most of the museum, we still treat it pretty much exactly as we did originally — that it doesn’t matter if visitors start on the bottom floor, first floor, or go to the middle. They don’t need to look at The O for everything. Just look at, read and listen to what takes their fancy.

The biggest challenge has been with temporary exhibitions, where we often do want people to take a certain route, or when there is a chronological or, more often at Mona, ideas-based thematic unfolding. The main way we’ve dealt with that is we’ve put in more beacons. When we first opened, there weren’t as many things in the collection, and there usually weren’t as many things in a space as there may be now. You could be offered a large number of objects in The O. But if we want people to move through and have an introduction to a room, then the spaces need to be more defined and fewer objects offered on The O screen at a time.

The first exhibition with thematic rooms was Theatre of the World, back in 2013. I think the traffic flow went quite well, but it wasn’t perfect. We got some location bleeding from room to room. But after the opening of the show — it was on for about 10 months — Art Processors improved the location positioning more and more. And they got it pretty perfect!

So now we know we need to start working with the Art Processors team the minute we know about a show. So, in Zero, which opened in 2018, there was a specific route we hoped people would take. There were actually a couple of options, but one was best, both for the visitor’s understanding and traffic flow. So I worked with Art Processors from the beginning, and with our guest curator, as soon as we had the floor plan. I wrote text for The O on the assumption that most people would go a certain way, but also wrote it so if they didn’t, everything would still make sense. And Art Processors placed the beacons in a way that encouraged people to want to head a certain way.

Lichtregen (Light Rain)
1966; recreated in 2018
Günther Uecker
Based on the original Lichtregen of 1966, Zero Foundation, Düsseldorf, made exclusively for ZERO at Mona
© Günther Uecker
Image courtesy Museum of Old and New Art (Mona)

Q. You’ve been working closely with Art Processors now since you started at Mona. Twelve years now. What are they like to work with?

Oh, I love working with them. I originally worked with Nic and Tony. Nic [Whyte] is very interested in content, so he understands when I’m hoping for something, like extracting material from the database, for example. I don’t really understand the technology in detail, but I think I understand what I can and can’t ask them to do. And, you know, there’s the fact that I have access to them in Collingwood! We’re in the same building so I can go over to Nic and we can work things out in person. And when I’m in Hobart we have Kit on site.

When I’ve been planning towards the exhibitions in the past, I’ve tried not to ask Art Processors to make The O do too many new things. That’s why it’s so exciting to see what they’ve done doing with Simon Denny’s Mine exhibition. The artist and the exhibition curators, Jarrod Rawlins and Emma Pike, have worked with Art Processors to do completely new things with The O: to make it an intrinsic part of the artist’s conception rather than only for information delivery.

Q. Mona is unique in having direct access to Art Processors, a tech company whose origin story is closely aligned with Mona’s story. How do you think Mona compares to museums that don’t have this kind of in-house tech resource?

So many museums do now have some kind of interactive device. I feel for us, having Art Processors is one of the things that’s kept us nimble and flexible and responsive, which is what we’ve always wanted to be. 

Certainly, other museums and galleries, like the Art Gallery of New South Wales, have experiences a little like The O for specific exhibitions, but not for the whole building: an experience within the exhibition space rather than the entire museum. I love the fact that we use The O throughout the whole of Mona (even outdoors if you use the BYO O), so that people are comfortable using it, and it becomes, well, it’s just how you do things. At other museums, you look at wall labels as well as using an electronic guide.

At Mona, The O is really intrinsic to the Mona experience whereas at other museums, an electronic device for visitors is a bit of a luxury add-on. Also, at many museums, you pay extra to use their O equivalent. It’s still something that you choose to take or not take. At Mona, I think people who don’t take The O might still have a great time, but they’re not going to have the most fun and interesting experience. But then that’s me talking: I’m a very curious person and I like to know stuff and understand things, and other people may not feel they need that as much!

Mona is very much a museum of ideas. Our exhibitions are there for a purpose. And so if you don’t use The O, you may miss out on the reasons that David’s spent his money and made so much effort to share his collection. He doesn’t — we don’t — want to tell people what to think, but we really do want people to think.