MONA – Tasmania’s old and new art museum is a top spot to visit

For years I’ve had Tasmania’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) on my bucket list having seen it listed in the Lonely Planet Travel Guide’s Top 100 places in the world to visit.

I’ve travelled a lot and confess I thought it a bit odd that a relatively new Aussie museum could be placed at Number 20 on the list. But having recently ticked MONA off my ‘must see’ list, I can assure you it definitely deserves it.

A trip to MONA should be considered an all-day affair not only because there’s so much to take in but because you’re likely to need a step outside for a brain break.

Opened in 2011 and created by David Walsh, an Australian businessman, art collector, professional gambler and somewhat eccentric millionaire, MONA is as much a sensory and interactive experience as it is a visual one.

Costing more than $75 million, the architecture and design of this massive museum is mind-boggling and unconventional as it is predominantly underground. But the MONA experience actually begins way before you descend into the maze of subterranean gallery spaces.

The dedicated ferries which take you from Hobart to MONA work to set the scene for what lies ahead. With interiors designed to conjure images of James Bond and Austin Powers, these swanky vessels are well worth wandering around during the short trip on the Derwent River.

Once you arrive at MONA’s jetty, and you’ve climbed the 99 steps to the entrance, you really should pause, resist the temptation to enter straight away and instead spend time exploring the vast grounds with their quirky and magnificent sculptures, creative landscaping and architectural hardscaping. 

Take time to play with your reflection on the curved mirror at the museum’s entrance and brace yourself for an experience of a lifetime. 

MONA is set out as a maze of rooms, corridors, tunnels and open spaces. Unlike traditional museums there are no brightly lit rooms with art hanging on stark white walls; instead, you’ll see innovative lighting techniques that create atmosphere and reverence. There are also no artwork labels as all info is provided by the museum’s phone app called The O. 

While you will find famous names such as Pablo Picasso, Sidney Nolan and Brett Whiteley adorning the walls, MONA really is the museum of everything. Sitting next to works by widely known artists you’ll see random, but carefully selected and displayed, ancient artefacts and imaginative contemporary art installations.

As you weave your way through the galleries, you’ll also encounter many relaxation points. Funky couches, plush ottomans and ornate throne-like chairs are placed to encourage you to sit and contemplate the surroundings. There’s also a couple of cocktail bars and even live music so allow yourself time to linger.

Of particular note is the portrait gallery where artworks are displayed on a vast mirrored wall designed with the clever intention that when you look at it you add your face to the gallery’s wall.

Another room, that I myself would have missed had someone not told me about it, is the Ladies Lounge. This is a women’s only space, without signage or fanfare on the exterior, but identifiable by expansive green velvet drapes and a female attendant ‘manning’ the entry. What you find inside constantly changes and is definitely something to look out for.

There’s no avoiding the fact that there’s likely to be artworks and art installations that visitors will find confronting, controversial and even confusing. But pushing the boundaries and poking a tongue out at the conventional art establishment is something creator David Walsh does not shy away from. And for every art piece that does unsettle you there will be ten times as many that will have you sighing in admiration and wonder.

If you are a lover of art, architecture, interior design and things that are a little left of centre; put MONA at the top of your bucket list.

Getting there is half the fun.

The MONA ferries leave from Hobart’s Brooke St Pier every hour. Bookings are essential and should be made well in advance and booked at the same time as your museum tickets.

The trip takes 25 minutes and there is a cafe on board.

Tickets are $23 return or you can pay $58 for a Posh Pit ticket which includes free drinks, tiny snacks and inflated egos.

While you can also drive there, it’s not encouraged as parking is limited.

Getting in… prepare to be amazed.

Entry tickets need to be pre-purchased as there are allocated entry times throughout the day to avoid overcrowding. Entry is $30 or $27 for concession card holders. Just ask for a ‘pass-out’ if you leave to eat outside so you can re-enter for free.

Food and beverage.

Take a wander outdoors to MONA’s onsite food venues. There are a couple of fancy restaurants (bookings essential) and a large outdoor food servery area with live music, hundreds of beanbags and umbrellas (no booking required). There’s plenty of wine and beer options too.

Get the MONA app

Download The O app – which will automatically load details of the art works as you move through the museum. It also records where you went so you can read up on exhibits at a later date as well as read about what you missed.