Private Museums of the World: Museum of Old and New Art (MONA)

A museum that blissfully defies conventional norms
This quixotic museum by Australian businessman and art collector David Walsh, designed by Fender Katsalidis, is carved into the Berriedale peninsula in Hobart, Tasmania.

by Nadezna SiganporiaPublished on : Oct 08, 2021

At the very least it is subversive; at the best it is the freedom of unabashed creative expression - eccentric and unconventional to its very core. It’s been described as both irreverent and spectacular, having been derided for ridiculing the sanctity of traditional art institutions and lauded for how ground-breaking it is. Designed by Australian architecture firm, Fender Katsalidis, the subterranean museum is carved into the peninsula, situated on the banks of the Derwent River in Hobart, Tasmania.

Situated on the banks of the Derwent River in Hobart, Tasmania, MONA is a world unto itself | MONA |Fender Katsalidis | STIRworld
Situated on the banks of the Derwent River in Hobart, Tasmania, MONA is a world unto itself Image: Courtesy of MONA

The Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) is an experiment into the human condition. “That experiment is ongoing and ever changing. The aesthetic wanted to be robust enough to engage with the ongoing changes and not so precious that its curators wouldn’t be afraid to chop and change. MONA was to be a place of exploration and self-discovery; it wouldn’t tell you what to think about art but rather provide a space conducive to thinking for yourself,” explains architect James Pearce, Director, Fender Katsalidis.

The rooftop lawn above the Pharos wing | MONA |Fender Katsalidis | STIRworld
The rooftop lawn above the Pharos wing Image: Courtesy of MONA

MONA has also been described as a “portrait of David”. So, who exactly is David? The short answer is that David Walsh, among many things, is an Australian businessman and avid art collector who made his vast fortune through gambling. He took his fortune and varied art collection and started MONA, Australia’s largest privately owned museum. The eclectic private collection is centred around two main themes – sex and death. The museum houses a diverse collection from an assortment of rare ancient artefacts to provocative contemporary art.

  • David Walsh’s collection private collection is centred around two main themes – sex and death. Artworks: Crucifix by Sidney Nolan (1955), The Naked Studio by Brett Whiteley (1981), and Vitalis by Toby Zeigler (2007)| MONA |Fender Katsalidis | STIRworld
    David Walsh’s private collection is centred around two main themes – sex and death. Artworks: Crucifix by Sidney Nolan (1955), The Naked Studio by Brett Whiteley (1981), and Vitalis by Toby Zeigler (2007) Image: Courtesy of MONA
  • Cunts…and other conversations by artist Greg Taylor | MONA |Fender Katsalidis | STIRworld
    Cunts…and other conversations by artist Greg Taylor Image: Courtesy of MONA
  • The collection also includes rare, ancient antiquities from around the world | MONA |Fender Katsalidis | STIRworld
    The collection also includes rare, ancient antiquities from around the world Image: Courtesy of MONA

The Collection

Jarrod Rawlins, Director, Curatorial Affairs, MONA, says, “The collection is diverse in its art historical coverage, with no particular framework or categorisation to speak of, more a simple embrace of the old and the new. (It) includes antiquities from around the world, including some very special maps and globes, a wonderful selection of Australian mid-20th century paintings, and amazing feats of engineering that make up some of our new contemporary art commissions as well as a large, wide-ranging library. Everything in the collection is significant; if we feel there is something that is more significant than the next, we will make an effort to not tell you. We avoid playing favourites…which doesn’t mean we don’t have them; it just means that it's important to us not to tell you what to think.”

The mirrored entrance to the Roy Grounds House from where one descends into the underground museum | MONA |Fender Katsalidis | STIRworld
The mirrored entrance to the Roy Grounds House from where one descends into the underground museum Image: Courtesy of MONA

The Journey

“The arrival sequence gives you time to adjust, to take you out of the everyday, to open your mind to new experiences,” explains Pearce. MONA is a 40-minute ferry ride from Hobart up the Derwent River. As one arrives, they have to climb up a long staircase cut into the rock – purposefully ascending from the water – to reach not the entrance but a tennis court. Turn around and one finds a warped mirrored wall with a black square – this is the entry into a modest house. Still no great art gallery.

  • The central steel spiral staircase leading to the underground museum | MONA |Fender Katsalidis | STIRworld
    The central steel spiral staircase leading to the underground museum Image: Courtesy of MONA
  • The vast ‘The Void’ with the raw, exposed rock walls | MONA |Fender Katsalidis | STIRworld
    The vast ‘The Void’ with the raw, exposed rock walls Image: Courtesy of MONA

Wander around and one finds the courtyard with a steel spiral staircase winding down three floors. But there’s still no art. A walk through a narrow slot in the stone turns right, along a great length of excavated rock wall. There’s still no art; but there is a bar for some liquid courage to explore further. From that point, you are on your own. “There is no particular path to take through the museum, finding your way is deliberately confused. There are no signs or maps and significant art works are in hard-to-find places. The lighting is low and the walls are black,” Pearce continues.

The interiors of the underground museum is a labyrinth of exhibition spaces and raw walkways | MONA |Fender Katsalidis | STIRworld
The interior of the underground museum is a labyrinth of exhibition spaces and raw walkways Image: Courtesy of MONA

Architecture

Located on – or rather under – the Moorilla Estate and winery, the main museum spans three floors carved underground into the Triassic sandstone cliffs. The idea started as a way of respecting the heritage houses on the site designed by one of Australia’s leading architects, Sir Roy Grounds, in the last 1950s. It was the way to build a significantly larger structure required to house the vast collection next to the houses without reducing their prominence. The Round House is now a museum library while Roy Grounds House is the museum entrance. “It became a way of encouraging discovery and intensifying the mystery – you descend out of the familiar and into the extraordinary, you take your mind off the every day and focus on the experience you are having,” Pearce continues.

David Walsh built the Museum of Old and New Art to house his collection of ancient, modern and contemporary art | MONA |Fender Katsalidis | STIRworld
David Walsh built the Museum of Old and New Art to house his collection of ancient, modern and contemporary art Image: Courtesy of MONA

Without windows, the dimly lit underground exhibition spaces can sometimes feel ominous. There are no traditional white box galleries rather raw excavated sandstone walls and a labyrinth of concrete bridges and Corten steel walkways connecting different spaces. Only the walls for art are plywood, finished with plasterboard for easy hanging and painting. The three levels span 6000 square-metres of exhibition spaces, a theatre and an art conservation area. There estate also features a green roof and a sculpture terrace along with chalets called MONA Pavilions, a restaurant, winery, beer brewery, gift shop, a private tennis court, various walkways and a penthouse.

  • The Pharos wing featuring Unseen Seen by James Turrell | MONA |Fender Katsalidis | STIRworld
    The Pharos wing featuring Unseen Seen by James Turrell Image: Courtesy of MONA
  • Unseen Seen by James Turrell is located in the Faro restaurant yet the entrance is concealed from the diners | MONA |Fender Katsalidis | STIRworld
    Unseen Seen by James Turrell is located in the Faro restaurant yet the entrance is concealed from the diners Image: Courtesy of MONA

Pharos, a new wing that cantilevers out over the River Derwent, was the first major extension. Named after the lighthouse in Alexandria, Egypt, it was only accessible via a tunnel from the main gallery when it was opened in 2017. The Siloam tunnel, opened in 2019, now provides an alternate connection between MONA and Pharos. “The original Siloam was one of the first tunnels to be constructed from both ends. We dug our version of Siloam to connect two existing areas of the museum, filled it with art and made it greater than the sum of its parts. I liked the idea of approaching heaven from below and forcing our visitors to be part of a procession by traversing a tunnel to nowhere,” said David Walsh of the unusual extension.

The Siloam, an art filled tunnel connecting MONA to Pharos | MONA |Fender Katsalidis | STIRworld
The Siloam, an art filled tunnel connecting MONA to Pharos Image: Courtesy of MONA

Private Museums of the World:
Curated by Pramiti Madhavji, STIR presents Private Museums of the World: an original series that takes you behind the scenes of privately-owned museums, sharing their origin with chats with art collectors, museum directors, curators and architects, who seamlessly come together to create the most unusual and amazing structures to host art collections.

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