Formerly known as the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, the redeveloped and rebranded Acmi in Melbourne, which has a remit to tell the story of film, television, videogames, digital culture and art, lends itself to a digital experience.
With the pandemic fuelling a migration to digital across the world, Acmi’s purpose is now more relevant than ever and its reboot could become a blueprint for any museum exploring how best to use digital technology.
Led by Seb Chan, the museum’s chief experience officer (and formerly of the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York), and Katrina Sedgwick, the director-CEO, the museum has developed an incredibly ambitious real-to-digital visitor experience and populated the spaces with screens that can regularly change their content.
Why do you think having a space dedicated to screen culture is important?
Katrina Sedgwick: Since the arrival of cinema 130 years ago, the moving image has become ubiquitous in our lives. But as technology proliferates and evolves so rapidly, we are witnessing an extraordinary democratisation – at once thrilling and terrifying – of its creation, distribution and consumption. It can drive our culture and media literacy, and is a foundational skill to living in a democratic society today.
Why did you decide to redevelop the museum?
Acmi is a unique museum in our region, celebrating all things moving image. It is spread across four floors, so we needed to connect the galleries, the cinemas and the education labs. We wanted to build a place that was warm and inviting. And we wanted to harness the digital tools that were available to us to enrich and extend the visitors’ experience before, during and after they visited the museum.
What structural changes did you make and why?
We are foundation tenants of the Alfred Deakin Building in the heritage-listed Federation Square precinct in the centre of Melbourne. The site wasn’t originally designed to house Acmi and the building’s vertical design with two entrances meant you could go to the cinema and not know there were galleries below and vice versa. We opened up the foyer spaces and created a grand open staircase to connect the two main levels. We brought the retail down to street level, created a magnificent event space in the centre of the museum, and brought in softer furnishings to encourage visitors to sit and dwell.
What new tech is central to the visitor experience?
The eXperience Operating System (XOS) – is the software architecture built by our team that enables content to flow smoothly from our collections systems into the museum into the website and post-visit. The system has transformed how we can adapt and change to reflect the rapid evolution of screen culture around us.
What have you developed alongside this?
We have created the Lens, which is a recyclable, free, cardboard device that is given to each visitor as they enter The Story of the Moving Image. It’s modelled on an old View Master slide and has a chip in it that enables visitors to tap on the interpretive labels and “collect” everything that they are interested in.
At the end of the exhibition there are interactive tables where you can explore things more deeply through the Constellation. These are groups or maps of content that lead you through a series of recommendations or connections between things. So, say you’ve seen a Kurosawa film – it might connect to Tarantino, which connects to the Simpsons, which connects to a videogame, which connects to an artwork.
Rather than an algorithm making connections for you, humans are doing it – which is what a museum is all about. Then when you get home, you can enter the code on your Lens online and explore all your content further and share it with your friends.
How did you work with the Indigenous Advisory Group?
Australia is home to the world’s longest continuing living culture with our First Peoples and they have been using the building blocks of the moving image – shadow and light – to tell stories for thousands of years. Our First Nations curators have worked closely with the Indigenous Advisory Group to embed First Nations voices, practice and stories throughout our permanent exhibition, The Story of the Moving Image. They have also helped commission many new works including Gunditjmara artist Vicky Couzen’s Yanmeeyar – which means flickering in the firelight. This multi-part installation frames the exhibition by depicting dancing figures and musicians, painted in ochre, using shadow and light to share their stories.
What is your favourite object in the museum?
The zoetrope. In 2017, Studio MDHR created the notoriously difficult but visually beautiful videogame Cuphead, which was inspired by 1920s cartoon styles. We worked with them to build a new version of a zoetrope, the pre-cinema toy that spins rapidly and uses strobe light, creating the illusion that the 90 characters – including Cuphead, Mugman, King Dice and the Devil – are animated. I love the way a contemporary videogame, inspired by 1920s animation, creates a 21st-century version of a 19th-century toy – the present speaking back to the past and back to the present again.
Francesca Lister-Fell is a freelance writer