MONA: The world's most far-out museum

MONA: The world's most far-out museum

Tasmania’s newest attraction is the brainchild of a pro gambler with a unique sense of humor
MONA Museum of Old and New Art
MONA hugs the Derwent, ripping the "stuffy" out of art museums.

Chiseled into an escarpment on the banks of the Derwent River in the northern suburbs of Hobart is a subterranean fortress housing one of the most confronting and controversial collections of art in the world.

The crowning achievement of Tasmanian David Walsh, a mathematician and art collector who made millions perfecting algorithms that let him to beat casinos and bookies at their own game, MONA (Museum of Old and New Art) has made a name for itself by breaking every rule in the book since opening its doors in January of last year.

The entrance, for example, casts aside the grand porticos and columns commonly seen at museums in favor of a synthetic tennis court and unmarked doorway.

“When you go to a conventional museum you are forced to walk up stairs and past pillars meant to make you feel small and then have academics tell you it’s culture,” says research curator Delia Nicholls. “But David wanted none of that so he built this place underground.”

Why the tennis court? “Because he likes tennis,” says Nicholls.

Into the deep

MONA Museum of Old and New ArtYes, this really is the entrance to one of the world's hottest new museums.

MONA’s foyer is incorporated in a heritage-listed building that looks like something out of “The Jetsons.”

Visitors are given an iPod touch that uses GPS to work out which artwork they are standing in front of, then gives a running commentary from Walsh himself, interviews with the artists and plenty more.

That all comes via a button on the iPod marked “Art Wank” -- you get the idea of the tone Walsh is trying to set now, perhaps.

From the lobby, a spiral staircase descends 17 meters underground, ending in a cathedral-like basement cordoned by a 250-million-year-old Triassic sandstone wall that Walsh, who once described himself as a “rabid atheist,” left exposed to challenge creationists on their beliefs.

What follows are three levels of steel and stone festooned with art and objects based around sex, death and evolution that are concurrently shocking, educational and entertaining.

To impart just a taste of the museum, first among these is a chocolate sculpture of the remains of a Chechen suicide bomber. Yes, chocolate.

bit.fall 2006-2007“Bit.fall” brings the day's headlines to life in liquid form.

One level up, a wall has been lined with white porcelain molds of female genitalia, while another wall shows a very large image of a man engaged in an unhealthy act with a dog.

A room-sized machine made of giant test tubes fed by a series of pumps parodies the digestive tract by turning food into a brown gooey paste, while an engorged and distended Porsche Carrera sagging with fat offers comment on mindless overindulgence.

Then there’s “Bit.fall,” a “rain-painting machine” created by German born artist Julius Popp. Spanning two stories, this multi-million dollar contraption uses 128 computer-controlled nozzles to drip cascades of water in the shape of phrases selected daily from news websites. You really need to see it, of course.

Sprinkled among these masterpieces of modern art, as though there were never a reason to keep them apart, are selections from Walsh’s private collection of antiquities.

They include a 1,500-year-old Egyptian sarcophagus, gold coins taken from one of the statues at the Partheon in Athens and a collage made of Neolithic flints.

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Eat, drink, sleep

Moorilla Winery and VineyardMoorilla Winery and Vineyard provides a refreshing, and very Tasmanian, end to the day.

On emerging from the deep, shell-shocked visitors can refuel at MONA’s al fresco café, wine bar or The Source restaurant.

Resident at The Source, Michelin-starred chef Philippe Leban blends wholesome Tasmanian ingredients and traditional French cuisine to make culinary artworks like roast duck breast with caramelized almonds and Ike Jime line-caught fish with oyster tartare.

MONA is built on the ground of Moorilla Estate, Tasmania’s second-oldest vineyard, which produces knockout cool-climate wine like Muse Botrytis Riesling and Muse Vintage Brut. Wine-tasting sessions are held daily, as are beer tours at MONA’s Moo Brewery.

Visitors can also stay the night at one of eight luxurious art-laden pavilions inspired by shipping containers and stylish A-frame homes of the 1960s that look like Darth Vader’s lair.

Combined with an outdoor concert stage set on a grassy hillock, a book shop, jewelry store and the scenic river bush land setting, it’s little wonder MONA topped “Gourmet Traveller” magazine’s list of the top 100 places to visit in the world.

No good deed ...

Walsh was raised in a conservative Catholic family. But on becoming an atheist at the age of 12, he made a pact with his parents that in place of going to church every Sunday, he would visit the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in Hobart instead.

“David could do that because the museum was free and the experience changed his life,” Nicholls says. “He wanted to give that opportunity to everyone, which is why he made his museum free for Tasmanians.”

Despite Walsh’s generosity and the sizeable dent MONA has put in his bank account -- the site cost $75 million to build, contains $30 million worth of art and costs $8 million a year to run -- some visitors have chosen an odd way to show their gratitude.

Earlier this year, thieves walked off with 290 of the iPod audio guides, worth nearly $300 each, after taking them to the bathrooms and removing their security chips. Staff were also shocked to find an outdoor sculpture of a car vandalized.

Walsh reacted by implementing new security measures but did not notify police. Rather, he stepped up his largesse by announcing the launch of FOMA (Festival of Music and Art).

This year’s 10-day festival, directed by former Violent Femmes bass guitarist Brian Ritchie, saw the likes of British singer-songwriter PJ Harvey, Australian dance troupe BalletLab and Mongolian throat singers Hanggai wow audiences in a series of free and ticketed events held on-site and at venues in and around Hobart.

Getting there: MONA is at 655 Main Road, Berridale, Hobart, Tasmania 7011, with free car parking on site. Alternatively, the MONA ferry departs six times a day from the Brooke Street ferry terminal in Hobart. Return tickets are $15 per person. Bicycles are also for hire at the terminal for $15 a day.

Entry to MONA is free for Tasmanians (proof of identify not required), $10 for non-Tasmanian concession cardholders and $20 for out-of-staters over 18. Open Wednesday to Monday 10 a.m.-6 p.m.

Staying there: MONA’s eight accommodation pavilions are equipped with kitchen, laundry, wine fridge, wireless touch panels, Wi-Fi and spa, with mid-week specials for $390 a night, including breakfast for two.

Eating and drinking there: The Source restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner from Tuesday to Saturday, starting from 6.30 a.m., midday and 6.30 p.m., respectively.

The Moorilla Estate cellar door is open daily from 9.30 a.m. to 5 p.m., with winery tours and tasting at 3.30 p.m. on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday.

Moo Brewery offers tasting tours at 4 p.m. on Friday for $10 per person. Bookings are recommended.

For more information, visit or call +61 (3) 6277 9900.

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Ian Lloyd Neubauer is a Sydney-based freelance journalist specializing in adventure travel. He has reported extensively across East Asia and the South Pacific and is the author of two travel novels, Getafix (2004) and Maquis (2006), which is being turned into a feature film in consultation with Fox Studios.

Read more about Ian Lloyd Neubauer