Tasmania’s radical contemporary Museum of Old and New Art

Tasmania's Museum of Old and New Art.

Tasmania’s MONA on the banks of the Derwent River.
Photo credit: Leigh Carmichael

Tasmania’s $75 million Museum of Old and New Art is the must-see destination in the island state once more famous for its dramatic landscapes and outdoor adventures. It seems like everybody, from European art buffs to everyday mums and dads, is abuzz about MONA, located in a subterranean sandstone structure on the banks of the Derwent River in Hobart. The largest private museum in Australia, MONA offers indoor adventures that rival New York’s edgiest galleries.

It is also no one trick pony since it is wedged into cliffs on the vine-dotted grounds of the Moorilla Estate winery which has a wine bar, cellar door for wine tastings and Moo Brew beer tastings, a fancy French-inspired restaurant and eight contemporary accommodation pavilions.

MONA has also spawned a slew of fabulous festivals and markets that bring a kaleidoscope of locals, interstate and international visitors to this creative mecca that just so happens to be located in an industrial suburb on the outskirts of a small city on the tip of the Southern Hemisphere.


David Walsh

The man behind it all is 51-year-old gambling multi-millionaire and mathematician, David Walsh, an iconoclast who is as passionate about antiquities and avant-garde art as he is reviled by ‘business-as-usual’ museums where people wander, eyes glazed, like listless automatons. He believes the pursuit of sex and the avoidance of death is what drives us all and numerous pieces are variously titillating, such as Zizi, the Affectionate Couch that vibrates and purrs when sat upon, or macabre, like the remains of a suicide bomber carved out of chocolate.

moo-bean-bags-72There is nothing predictable about MONA.  It is difficult even to find how to get inside.  Turns out you enter through a large shiny metal door beside an Astroturf tennis court (not an installation piece, David likes tennis). A heritage-listed Roy Grounds building houses a café and gift shop but the real treasures lie below in a womb-like cave gouged 30-meters through Jurassic sandstone. Here you find yourself…a little like Alice down the rabbit hole…in a maze of rambling rooms linked by lead pathways overlooking those exquisite sandstone walls.

What you’ll see

Ancient gold coins are suspended in black boxes alongside a Brett Whiteley painting of Van Gogh’s bandaged head.  Intricately painted Egyptian coffins sit above Anselm Keiffer’s Sternenfall, evoking illusory constellations and NASA-named stars. Cloaca Professional by Wim Delvoye, a series of five glass vials recreating the human digestive tract, is fed twice daily. It poos at 2pm for all to see.

There are also hauntingly beautiful pieces such as Neolithic flints arranged like exploding stars; Bit Fall, whose thin water veil drips words randomly selected from Google along the sandstone walls; Sidney Nolan’s 46-meter-long, color-saturated mural evoking the desert in bloom, and a temple of binary digits (encoding the Epic of Gilgamesh) which echo the markings on ancient Assyrian paving stones.  And of course, there’s the downright amusing pieces such as Fat Car by Erwin Wurm.

When you need a break, order a drink at the basement Void bar and relax on one of its odd assortment of baroque armchairs. Even better, for lunch enjoy a tasting platter at the wine bar or a slap-up meal at the French inspired Source restaurant, named after a spectacular John Olsen painting on the ceiling.

The O

In place of signage you are lent an O, an iPhone-like device, which identifies your location and offers enlightenment from the basic (title, artist and materials) to detailed art-wank as well as fascinating interviews with the artists, which you can listen to on audio. You can even vote whether you love or hate each piece and your trajectory through the museum, plus evaluations, is emailed to you as a memento. Even better, the staff at MONA are art students and artists so if you have a question you’ll be interacting with people who know what they are talking about.

MONA has been dubbed the Bilbao of the Southern Hemisphere, an epithet that infuriates Walsh because he thinks Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim is all building and no collection. Others lazily describe it as an adult Disneyland, also inaccurate since, whatever you think of the artwork, this museum teases engagement not saccharine passivity.  This is indeed, a place for grown-ups…to lose themselves and their preconceptions.

When you emerge into Hobart’s sunshine, you may feel, like I did, about twenty years younger. My brain zipped with images and ideas, akin to Artifact’s Grecian-inspired Colossus, into whose giant statuesque head I had peered moments earlier to discover apples falling from branches into bright green hands where they melted into colored liquid which fell into hats while yellow birds flew out of womb-like bladders to crash into small, open, antique books that then slam shut.


How to access

Void-Bar-inside-MONA-72MONA is on the banks of the Derwent River in the working class neighborhood of Berriedale. By far the best way to visit is via ferry which you can take from Sullivan’s Cove, in the heart of Hobart’s historic center. There is a parking lot at the museum but it is small and is often full.

The address is 655 Main Road, Berriedale; (03)6277-9900(03)6277-9900. Open daily 10am-6pm (10am-5pm in winter).  The museum is free to all Tasmanians. Visitors pay $25, or $20 for concessions.

Eating and Drinking there

The Source restaurant serves breakfast/lunch daily and dinner Tuesday-Saturday.  Its refined French-inspired cuisine embodies the hoary saw, ‘think globally, act locally.’

The wine bar (10am-late), overlooking the winery, serves charcuterie, cheese and tapas dishes alongside Moorilla Wines, Moo Brew beers.

There is also Museum Cafe in the Courtyard House (10am-5pm), the Void Bar (10am-5pm) and the Heavy Metals Kitchen, a world barbecue installation on the Mona lawns.

Staying there

Roy-pavilion-bedroom-72Eight flashy contemporary pavilions incorporate the aesthetic of four major Australian artists (Arthur Boyd, Brett Whiteley, Charles Blackman, and Sidney Nolan), and feature their original artwork, and four architects who have influenced Australia’s architectural landscape (Roy Grounds, Robin Boyd, Esmond Dorney and Walter Burley Griffin). All offer luxurious bedding, designer furniture, top-of-the-line kitchens, individual wine cellars and every conceivable digital device as well as access to a heated indoor infinity pool, gymnasium and sauna.

Other Attractions

The Mona Market runs from mid January to mid April each year. This year’s theme is Heavy Metal and the goal is to reclaim the Derwent River from its heavy metal pollution through creativity and innovation. You’ll enjoy fabulous food, drink, art, architecture, performance and design all around the ‘heavy’ theme.

MOFO, mid January, is a quirky festival of Music and Art, curated by Brian Ritchie, base guitarist with the alternative rock band Violent Femmes.

Dark MoFo in late June is a fabulous and rather surreal winter feast and musical festival in the depth of winter. It also marks the opening of MONA’s winter exhibition.


Your say

Mona loves controversy and I’d love to hear your reactions and responses to some of the exhibits you’ve seen there. What did you love and hate?

Let me know about any other avant garde museums around the world you find particularly fascinating too. I will be sure to check them out.


The Jurassic sandstone walls create a dramatic environment inside Tasmania's Museum of Old and New Art.

The Jurassic sandstone walls create a dramatic environment inside MONA. Photo courtesy of Tourism Tasmania.


Museum of Old and New Art

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Museum of Old and New Art -42.812277, 147.260056

Sue Gough Henly

Sue Gough Henly is award-winning travel writer and photographer whose bi-line has appeared in The New York Times, Travel & Leisure, The Guardian, The Toronto Star and all the major Australian publications. Her travel blog, Genuine Journeys, is full of insider tips on the best places for authentic experiences and luxury splurges. She is also the author of Australia’s Best Places travel app. When she doesn’t have sand between her toes or a pack on her back, she writes about food, wine and culture.

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