In 2020, experience design and creative technology company Art Processors worked with long-term partner Mona to help the museum become COVID-compliant in time for its reopening in December.
Opening in January 2011, the Museum of Old and New Art (Mona), located in Hobart, Australia, has become a must-see venue for art-lovers worldwide.
A major contributor to the local economy, the museum employs around 400 people. An independent study by Deloitte for the 2017-18 financial year found that Mona contributed $135m to Tasmania's gross state product and $165m to Australia's gross domestic product.
On March 17, 2020, Mona founder David Walsh announced the museum's temporary closure due to COVID-19.
In a statement tinged with humour and resignation, Walsh steered the course of good sense: “Taken as a whole, is Mona being operational a net service to the community? Spoiler alert: the answer, as far as I’m concerned, is no.” He also invoked the timeless wisdom of Monty Python in his statement to justify the closing: "When danger reared its ugly head, he bravely turned his tail and fled."
Mona, and much of the rest of Australia, was closed for business. A long, dark COVID winter ensued.
Emerging from the lockdown
Mona is different from most museums. The exhibits reflect the eclectic quirks of Walsh's artistic interests, from the surreal to the sublime. It's loose and playful, allowing visitors to discover its delights for themselves rather than being herded through in an orderly manner.
The O facilitates this organic discovery experience at Mona. Developed by Art Processors in close partnership with Mona over the past 10 years, as the museum's website says, "The O is here to help you explore the deep recesses of David's lounge room."
The O guides visitors through the galleries and informs them about the artworks, replacing conventional wall labels with a more personalised experience. Accessed either on an in-house handheld device or downloadable app to the visitor's BYO device, it has been integral to bringing Walsh's unorthodox vision to life.
Art Processors co-founder and Chief Design & Technology Officer, Nic Whyte, calls The O "a non-linear experience."
"Mona messes with the typical curatorial approach, and The O very much supports that method. It doesn't tell the visitors where to go," Whyte says.
But as we all know, COVID has changed how we do pretty much everything, including exploring spaces like Mona.
New health and safety regimes to minimise the virus's potential spread, including social distancing, have altered how we navigate public spaces. The public now expects higher standards of rigour and oversight from institutions, too. We're less carefree, more careful; fewer hijinks, more hygiene. We've all had to adapt—quickly.
How to open a COVID-compliant museum
So how does a not-so-normal museum return to normal in the age of COVID-normal?
That was the big challenge for Mona's staff as they stared down the scheduled reopening date of December 26, 2020. As well as being Boxing Day, the reopening fell just before the museum's 10th-anniversary celebrations in January.
The stakes were high. Time was tight. Mona's staff across all areas, from backend logistics to front-of-house, had a mountain to climb. So too did Art Processors.
The museum would have to change its operations to allow for new visitor number caps, flow and density restrictions, cleaning and sanitisation processes, and a host of other factors. As anyone involved in running a sizeable institution knows, tweak one thing and there's sure to be a ripple effect.
The O had to play a significant role in facilitating many of these changes, as it has done in past years during peak times. Working closely with Mona's key staff, Art Processors revamped and rewrote The O to extend its functionality while still interpreting artworks and providing the same flawless experience Mona's visitors have come to expect from the mobile guide over the past decade.
"Our biggest challenge has been to maintain the integrity of the explorative nature of the Mona experience," says Anthony White, Mona's Front of House Operations Manager.
"In a post-COVID environment, we're trying to keep people flowing and avoiding pinch-points. In some ways, it goes against Mona's explorative element, where we encourage people to go where the experience takes them. How do we keep the integrity of the experience but gently guide people through the spaces, so we're getting good flow?"
White says artworks with a limited viewing capacity presented a significant challenge.
"In a busy museum context, when you've got artworks that can only be seen by two or three people or even one person at a time, managing that can be problematic. That's something we've worked on for a long time, but it's even more crucial now."
"We had to be very responsive because the consequences have never been as great. It's something we had to get right."
For the reopening, the museum's curatorial staff carried out a complete rehang of the permanent exhibition. "It's the biggest one we've done since the opening 10 years ago and very much a focus on David Walsh's collection," says Jarrod Rawlins, Senior Curator at Mona.
COVID restrictions meant the museum could no longer provide The O to visitors as an in-house device. "We had to work out how not to give out a device we've been giving out for a decade while relying on that device to deliver the museum experience," he says.
"We've always had these iPod touches available. Suddenly, we had to fast-track the development of the BYO option, especially the Android application, which we'd never offered before."
"Knowing we didn't want to reinvent the wheel, the biggest quandary we faced was how we communicate to gallery-goers that you have to download this app before you arrive at the museum to experience the exhibition in the way we've designed it."
Re-imagining The O
Whyte and the Art Processors team set about reconceptualising The O to work in with Mona's new COVID-enforced operational requirements. He was highly alert to the complexities of expanding The O's functional scope while keeping its core intact.
"The primary objective of The O is to deliver interpretive material about the artworks. It's to replace all labels. So above everything else, it needs to do that. And by adding extra utility maps and access to the visitor guide, access to the food and beverage offerings, and queuing systems, you start tipping the balance there."
With no in-house device available, developing The O's Android application took on greater urgency, too.
Running The O's software solely on iOS had worked fine while visitors could either use their BYO Apple device or access an in-house device. However, Android users would be left in the dark without the option of the in-house device. Along with the extensive reconfiguring of the iOS application, Art Processors had to get the Android version up and running quickly.
Since reopening, The O for Android has been downloaded more than 7,200 times, 26% of the app's total downloads for the period.
"I had anticipated it was going to be a large body of work because The O is a big application. I'd call it deceptively simple. But it is a huge amount that goes into making the application, we go the extra length to make sure visitors don't see error messages, and everything works. It knows where you are; it knows what artworks are around you because that's the primary goal. And that's not easy to get all those things right."
Whyte identified a handful of critical features for the new version of The O, including:
- managing visitor density and flow management through a 'wildcard' ticketing system and a revised virtual queuing system;
- adding location-based push notifications with an SMS waitlist to direct visitors to events like outdoor live music at the museum, ensuring visitors are always informed of entertaining options;
- and incorporating more visitor guide elements for amenities and services both within and outside the museum.
These practical features give Mona staff added control and oversight of visitor numbers and movement, vital for maintaining COVID compliance. It also minimises visitors' anxieties and waiting times, letting them enjoy all the museum has to offer without having to mill about in queues where social distancing might be difficult.
With Mona now open, visitors need to book a ticket to access the museum and grounds. There are two options: book a specific time or book a 'wildcard' ticket.
Art Processors worked with Mona to build the wildcard waitlist, ensuring those who can't commit to a time are notified via text message when they can enter the museum. The result is flexibility for visitors and a level of assurance for museum staff.
"We're relying on ticketing systems like the wildcard system to ensure we have a capacity in the building we can safely manage," says White.
"What we realised on reopening was that COVID allowed us to take the logic inherent in things like the digital queuing system and expand it much wider to a holistic visitor companion," he says.
"We've kept that explorative Mona experience along with controlling our numbers. The experience is enhanced because you get enough numbers through for a good vibe, and you hold that throughout the day."
Mona also used the reopening to rethink printed guides. The O provides a perfect platform to perform that function, says Whyte.
"Handing things out is a bit of a no-no with COVID. With factors like printing costs, there are so many unknowns in having a museum open at the moment. You need to be very dynamic and be able to change things, even close things, quickly; so a digital alternative makes sense."
"It's about making sure the system is flexible because humans are chaotic and environments are chaotic, and we need to own that and find ways to make sure we're not making it worse," he says.
Rawlins says The O's new features have gelled well with visitors from a curatorial perspective.
"I've been watching the audience and how they're interacting with the device, the artwork and the spaces. It seems pretty seamless to me. Everyone seems to have got their app downloaded and working well, which for me is the best outcome."
"Art Processors did a great job to make it look like nothing changed."
Lessons for the future
The intensity of the reopening period has eased to an extent. But Whyte is well aware the app will require more tweaks to handle new circumstances and expectations, particularly as fresh user data rolls in or COVID-safe compliance regimes change.
He's thinking about The O's new possibilities and what learnings from the Mona reopening Art Processors can apply to other projects.
"We want to continue looking at ways that technology and the data that we collect through technology, isn't just dumbing the experience down, but subverting it, and still giving control and agency to the visitor."