How might a mobile experience untether museum visitors from wall labels and waiting in line, while also supporting the vision of curators and artists?

When David Walsh opened the Museum of Old and New Art he wanted to revolutionise the way a museum could look and feel. He wanted to democratise the museum experience—no wall labels, no scholarly rhetoric. He wanted a different type of storytelling.

So in the three years leading up to Mona’s opening in 2011, Art Processors invented The O.

It put Mona at the cutting edge of museum mobile technology—and continues to push the boundaries of what a mobile experience can be.

The O replaces traditional wall labels and texts in the cavernous and controversial museum, using indoor location technology that finds visitors wherever they are and tells them about the artwork on display closest to them.

Visitors use The O to read and listen to ‘Artwank’, Walsh’s ramblings about his private collection, interviews with artists and family-friendly content. They can ‘love’ and ‘hate’ the art, join virtual exhibition queues, and save their visit for viewing later.

Augmented reality capabilities in The O mean it can be directly incorporated into major exhibits, such as Mona’s most technologically ambitious exhibition to date, New Zealand artist Simon Denny’s Mine.

Since Mona opened, The O has been used by over 90% of visitors—unheard of in the museum sector.

It’s no exaggeration to say The O and Art Processors have enabled Mona to manifest the way it has–dark, mysterious, confusing, different, innovative.

Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania Photo Credit: Mona/Jesse Hunniford

Challenge

Walsh wanted visitors to experience the same excitement he felt as a collector on first encountering his art. He didn’t want them to read about the objects as they shuffled from label to label, as they had done at his Moorilla Museum of Antiquities. He faced two challenges: he wanted visitors to enjoy the artworks in an aesthetically pleasing space, and he wanted to deliver rich content in an individual manner without distracting from the aforementioned aesthetic.

Approach

Walsh wanted something that didn’t exist, so we formed Art Processors to invent it. Moving information from walls to a mobile device enabled the museum space to be re-imagined; walls didn’t need to be white, there was no need for bright lights to illuminate tiny text, and way-finding became exploratory rather than dictatorial. The context of objects could be extended far beyond a block of words.

Deliverables

The O, an accessible and user-friendly mobile experience for iOS that provides location-based content for a variety of learning styles and interests. It provides the ability to ‘love’ and ‘hate’ artworks, virtual exhibit queues, augmented reality capabilities, and ‘save tour’ functionality for off-site engagement. The O uses our Museum Operating System, which also supports curatorial and front of house staff in the day-to-day management of the museum.

“I could easily have not opened the doors if some of the art didn’t look right or some of the lighting wasn’t working, but if The O wasn’t there I was never going to open because it was the thing that gave me the freedom to create in the way that I wanted to create.”
– David Walsh, Mona owner

The O: The device we made that made us

In early 2009, we developed a prototype that proved the feasibility of using indoor positioning technology to deliver proximity-based information about artwork. Our solution met Walsh’s wish to provide both rich content to visitors and keep the museum free from anything other than the objects on display.

This radical design and curatorial desire was a first for a major museum—and placed significant demand on us to build a reliable, versatile, and user-friendly mobile technology.

With more than 2 million users to date, The O is well-tested, proven and, most critically, reliable.

Our light, seamless, accessible and intuitive design for iOS, which visitors can use on a museum-owned device of download to their smartphone, has enabled The O to become a central yet unobtrusive part of the Mona experience.

Over 90% of visitors have used The O to learn about, engage, and interact with the museum’s many permanent and temporary exhibits.

The O tells visitors what they are looking at, wherever they are in the 8,000 square metre museum. With titles like ‘Art wank’, ‘Gonzo’ and the family-friendly ‘O Minor’, it allows visitors to read curatorial descriptions of objects, listen to interviews with artists or hear Walsh’s own, often highly idiosyncratic comments, or enjoy music matched to the exhibit.

The O also delivers to the museum valuable information about its visitors—where they go, what they look at, and what they don’t.

“The O liberated (Mona) from white walls… (It delivers) vastly more important information of greater richness than conventional signage.”
– Richard Flanagan, Tasmanian Devil, The New Yorker

Love + Hate: Disarming visitors, collecting their data

On The O, visitors can let the museum know when they ‘love’ or ‘hate’ something. When Mona first opened, this feature was incredibly disarming for visitors. Walsh wanted to viscerally provoke and force people to have opinions about his provocative collection.

Early on, Walsh planned to use the ‘love’ and ‘hate’ data collected by The O to de-install the most loved artworks. But that plan didn’t eventuate.

Everyone loves bit.fall, a two-storey waterfall that spells out words streamed from real-time Google searches on the descent. For a time, everyone hated Mummy and Coffin of Pausiris, a man who lived and died in Egypt some 2000 years ago.

From January 2011 when Mona opened to August 2017, 32% of visitors hated this permanent exhibit.

The Queuer: Replacing physical queues with virtual ones

No one likes waiting in line, so at Mona we got rid of them. We added world-first virtual queuing technology to The O that has saved 113,930 visitors 1,798 days of standing in physical lines.

It was no coincidence that Mummy and Coffin of Pausiris was the most hated exhibit in the museum’s collection—people hated it because they hated waiting in line to see it.

So in the lead up to the opening of James Turrell’s light installations in 2017, and knowing the American artist’s work would be popular, we introduced virtual queues. When a visitor wants to see a special exhibit, they can line up virtually, get an estimated wait time, and continue exploring the museum.

Our queueing is location-aware and elastic, thanks to our indoor location technology. While a visitor ‘waits in line’ their movements are tracked. The system monitors their distance from the exhibit, whether they are nearby or on the other side of the museum. Visitors who are closer are summoned sooner, essentially letting them skip ahead in the queue. This allows visitors to continue enjoying other exhibits at their leisure.

When a visitor reaches the front of the queue, they get a notification and a 30-minute window during which they can make their way to the exhibit. When they arrive, they’re ushered inside within 5 minutes.

If a visitor stops for lunch at the Museum Cafe or a drink at one of Mona’s bars, the system takes this into account and only notifies them of their turn to enter an exhibit once they’ve resumed exploring the museum.

“Since implementing virtual queues, curatorial staff have noticed a shift in the Mummy’s popularity. Removing physical queues means visitors no longer have to wait to see it, are more engaged while viewing it, have a deeper understanding of what they’re seeing, and are less likely to ‘hate’ it. Our virtual queuing technology has not only given Front of House staff more control over queues, but it has affected how visitors perceive and enjoy Mona.”
– Nic Whyte, Co-Founder and Delivery Director, Art Processors

An essential management tool for Front of House

The O is a ubiquitous force behind the unique Mona experience, and not just for visitors—for museum staff, too.

With more than 400,000 visitors exploring the museum annually, Mona’s Front of House team relies on a staff-only area of The O for up-to-date information about staff schedules, events, artworks, exhibits, and virtual queues.

Having the ability to manage schedules using The O is especially important during peak periods as staff rotate every hour throughout the museum. As well as providing the framework for each staff member’s daily movements, including meal breaks, The O provides information regarding performances and events that may be happening at the museum. As changes are made throughout the day to any of this information, the latest version can be uploaded to The O so staff members have the most recent information at their fingertips.

The O also gives Front of House easy access to artwork information, which allows the museum’s supervisor and management teams to quickly report any incidents involving artwork. This reduces the need for Front of House to attend to problems in person before reporting to the necessary technicians, saving considerable travel time across the large museum site.

Tunnels inside Pharos Photo Credit: MONA/Jesse Hunniford
“Being able to search by artist, or artwork or authors on The O is a useful tool for managers. With an ever-evolving collection on display, it is impossible to stay across ever detail. To have the details of those works on display at the ready rather than needing to consult the traditional detailed collection management databases is a definite time saver.”
– Anthony White, Mona Front of the House Operations Manager

An invaluable digital tool for curators

The O, as Richard Flanagan writes for The New Yorker, “liberated Walsh from white walls and meant the museum could be dimly lit and moody. Walsh’s curators could embrace a liberating theatricality.”

You won’t find wall labels or texts in Mona. All information about the objects on display is in The O. If curators need to update artwork information, they can make changes to content themselves that’s available to visitors in real-time.

When Mona’s core collection is ‘re-hung’ a couple of times a year, curators can move objects wherever they like without having to worry about where to position labels. But they do work closely with Kit Whyte from Art Processors, who provides operational support at Mona.

The museum runs a busy exhibitions program—usually two major openings per year, in winter and summer; with smaller ones interspersed as well.

When new exhibitions are being planned, curators liaise with Whyte and Front of House. They’ll spend time in the gallery space looking at where objects will be placed, where beacons for The O’s indoor location system need to be positioned, and how Front of House will manage the space.

Augmented reality: supporting the artist’s vision

Art Processors collaborated with New Zealand artist Simon Denny for Mona’s most technologically ambitious exhibition, Mine. It blended visitor interactions, augmented reality, and The O.

Partly inspired by Mona’s subterranean setting in Hobart (it’s carved into the Triassic sandstone of the Berriedale Peninsula) and the visitor data the museum collects via The O, Mine explores mining as a reflection of hope and anxiety about the environment, development, and technology.

Over two-and-a-half years, we worked closely with Denny on exhibition design, creative conceptualisation, and technology integration, as well as exhibition curators Jarrod Rawlins and Emma Pike.

As visitors walk around the exhibition, they can scan markers using The O for augmented reality experiences that bridge the physical and digital. Mine taps into the real-time data The O collects from visitor interactions and the museum as a whole, and feeds it back into the exhibition’s AR experiences.Mine is the first time The O is part of an exhibition and not just the supporting act, bringing together artist, curator and tech company.  It’s also an example of how technology, when used innovatively and collaboratively, not only enhances the visitor’s experience of an exhibition but can support an artist’s vision.

Saving visits: Encouraging repeat visitation

As well as enjoying the Mona experience onsite, more than 20% of visitors use The O to create a museum account so they can ‘re-visit’ the museum off-site. The O is designed to store a visitor’s movement history so they can save their visit for later viewing online.

This ‘save visit’ functionality has resulted in additional reach through both traditional and social media platforms.

In March 2012, 14 months after Mona opened, an independent research survey was conducted to investigate the impact of The O on museum visitors. This survey was repeated in August 2016 to assess both the impact of platform enhancements and the changing perception of mobile technology in museums.

 

Art Processors + Mona: A long-term and experimental partnership

The O is the result of a 12-year-long partnership between Mona and Art Processors. During the initial development of The O, Art Processor’s founders’ worked closely with Walsh and his team of exhibition designers, art directors, architects, and curators in designing what was cutting edge mobile technology at the time.

Today, we continue to experiment and innovate with The O, introducing new functionality as requested by museum staff, application updates for special exhibitions, and inventing new features that Walsh dreams up.

In designing The O, we took steps to ensure that after the device’s launch, much of the management could be undertaken by Mona staff. To facilitate this, we met technical requirements for on-site housing of servers, cabling and other infrastructure, as well as software management that gives staff easy access to creating new content, updating existing content, and managing objects within the space.

Great care was taken to design hardware solutions for maintaining the fleet of 1300 iPods, including custom charging units and handout/drop off stations so museum staff could easily move visitors through the reception area and into the museum proper.

“The O didn’t so much benefit Mona as create it.”
– David Walsh, Mona owner

Impact

92%

Percentage of visitors to Mona who’ve used The O for at least part of their time.

73%

Percentage of visitors to Mona who’ve used The O throughout their experience.

80%

Percentage of visitors who said The O enhanced their experience of the museum.

113,930

Number of visitors who joined virtual queues via The O during the first year of operation.

1,798

Number of days we saved visitors waiting in physical queues during the first year of operation.

1

Number of exhibits Art Processors has been directly part of (delivering AR for Simon Denny’s Mine).