Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

ACMI reopens with coherent, elegant design

ACMI chief Katrina Sedgwick: “How do we preserve our own memories, our nation’s memories? Credit: Simon Schluter.

Philippa Hawker, ACMI is back – and coming home with you, The Age, 5 February 2021

The new-look Australian Centre for the Moving Image has a sense of big ideas and far-reaching ambitions. These can be expressed on a small scale, however, in objects or features with a personal touch: something to activate with a gesture, to carry in your hand, to connect you in the moment to the past.

Home movies play out on a visitor’s hand in ACMI’s new Memory Garden. Credit: Simon Schluter.

In one exhibit called the Memory Garden, visitors can watch while scenes from the past play out on the palm of their hands. The exhibit is a testimony to a pre-digital world, before mobile phones and TikTok, when people filmed their own lives, made 8mm movies and videos that archived moments of the everyday.

Ten columns rise up from the ground. When you put your hand on top of one, it triggers a projection from above and your hand becomes a screen, a way to watch and be physically connected to a flickering series of images from the past: trams, people on the beach, a game of tennis, weddings, birthdays, football matches, elusive yet immediately identifiable fragments in which time blurs from one moment to the next.

The renewed ACMI, which will open to the public on February 11, is the latest vision for an institution that has been at Melbourne’s Federation Square since 2002. ACMI was already closed for redevelopment when COVID-19 struck; the pandemic led to the postponement of an opening originally planned for the first half of last year.

Central to the revamped museum is a collection and storage device that every visitor receives. The Lens is a lightweight disc that can be used to collect and store information at touchpoints throughout ACMI’s new signature exhibition, The Story of the Moving Image. The device allows for an engagement with ACMI that expands beyond the physical visit, an important focus for director and CEO Katrina Sedgwick.

Sedgwick, who joined the organisation in 2015, had a vision for ACMI that is partly expressed by its slogan, “your museum of screen culture”. The word “museum” suggests a place of curation, collection, expertise and exhibition. The possessive pronoun “your” stresses individual experience and engagement.

“What intrigued me when I first came to ACMI was the potential for digital technology to really extend and enhance a visitor experience,” Sedgwick says. “I’d seen examples of that around the world, really interesting ways that technology could be deployed. To me, that’s one of the most exciting things about working in a museum in the 21st century – all these incredible tools that you can use.”

Sedgwick brought in Seb Chan, who had worked at the Cooper Hewitt design museum in New York, as ACMI’s chief experience officer. One of the things that drew him to ACMI, he says, was the nature of its content. “We are a museum of media that is media as well,” with all the capacity for exploration and self-reflection that implies.

“For us, it is about that sense of a museum being a place that changes people. Being a museum of media, we want to change how you watch and how you play. And that’s something that begins in the galleries but it doesn’t end in the galleries.”

With the Lens, for example, information that a visitor collects can be accessed via email, using an individual code. There are other kinds of material online too: commissioned essays and pieces, he says, “that tell stories about the items or the work”⁣.

“What we’re building is almost like a dynamic magazine that surrounds the content and the ideas of the exhibition, that extends those out, and also isn’t trapped in this moment, or shouldn’t be.”

As a cultural institution, ACMI covers a lot of ground. Not only because its definition of the moving image takes in film, television, digital material, art and video games, but also because of what it does with these areas. It presents exhibitions, temporary and permanent; it screens films; it acquires and commissions screen-based art. It has a collection and preservation focus, and an educational brief. It’s involved in research. It’s a place people visit for a range of individual reasons; part of the redesign was to encourage visitors to explore all its possibilities. And now, more than ever, it’s a multi-platform institution with an online presence.

In 2009, under then-CEO Tony Sweeney, ACMI set up a free exhibition called Screen Worlds, designed to provide narratives and interpretations of the moving image. The idea of a signature exhibition of this kind has a central place in ACMI’s scheme of things. “In our last full year of opening we had 1.5 million visitors and 660,000 of them went to the free exhibition, despite it being 10 years old,” Sedgwick says. “It really is core to our institution.”

In the new version, First Nations content was seen as integral from the outset. One of the earliest stages of the process, says ACMI chief curator Sarah Tutton, was to contact Penny Smallacombe, a Maramanindji woman who is head of the Indigenous department of Screen Australia. Smallacombe brought together a group of First Nations practitioners to discuss the representation of content and practice in the new exhibition. Following this, an Indigenous advisory group was established, which included screen practitioners and traditional owners, to guide the development of First Nations content and ensure representation across the exhibition.

This group, says ACMI First Nations curator Louana Sainsbury, a Darug woman, emphasised the need for “works that are made by Indigenous filmmakers and Indigenous artists, not works that are made about us. Self-representation is a central theme of content throughout the exhibition.”

There are newly created films and there is material that is testimony to significant early productions. It was also important that work appeared throughout The Story of the Moving Image, and was not compartmentalised in a single section or within an Australian context. First Nations work can also be found in sections devoted to production and costume design, in sections on TV or documentary, or in the Memory Garden, for example.

The exhibition is framed at the entrance and exit by a striking work by Vicki Couzens, a Keerray Woorroong Gunditjmara artist who has reflected on the origins of the moving image in firelight and flickering shadows, and has created a piece that she says also provides visitors with “the opportunity to perhaps see the world through our lens”.

The Story of the Moving Image is divided into five sections but it is not encyclopedic, and it doesn’t follow a straightforward chronological narrative; it’s an environment in which past, present and future intersect and the tactile and the virtual co-exist. Costumes were an early focus, says Tutton. As talismanic objects, they can have an extraordinary impact. One of ACMI’s Winter Masterpieces shows, the 2013 Hollywood Costume exhibition, had a powerful effect on visitors. Three people fainted.

The current costume display includes work by Oscar-winner Sandy Powell, who visited ACMI when it presented a 2016 exhibition on Martin Scorsese, whom she’s worked with many times. The exhibition also includes costumes by Australian Edie Kurzer, whose films include Judy and Punch. In another example of cross-referencing and interplay, Kurzer also guest-curated a cabinet of curiosities in the foyer, a beguiling installation that showcases collectible pop-culture objects of all kinds.

ACMI led the way with its interest in video games as part of the moving image universe: other institutions, says Sedgwick, are starting to catch up. Interactive engagement is part of the extended games section, contextualised in a way that goes beyond play.

There are interactive elements throughout The Story of the Moving Image, but overall, says Tutton, “there aren’t a lot of headphones … We wanted this to be much more social, because that’s part of the joy of a museum experience.”

A wall of dioramas presents loungerooms of the past inside the new-look ACMI. Credit: Adam Gibson.

One exhibit where visitors are likely to linger is a wall of TV sets, each one containing a diorama representing a loungeroom from a particular era, from the 1950s to the 2000s. The dioramas – conceived by set designer Graham McGuffie and constructed by lawyer and miniaturist Emily Boutard – are immaculately furnished with period-appropriate furniture and objects, from a sailing ship fireguard and piano in the ’50s to a flannel shirt draped over the couch and a Pulp Fiction poster in the ’90s. Tiny TVs in each room will play shows from the relevant decade.

The Constellation suggests a galaxy of possibilities beyond the scope of ACMI.

At the end of the exhibition is the Constellation, a welcoming, expansive digital display area that allows visitors to make immediate connections with the material collected on their personal Lens. The design of the area suggests a galaxy of possibilities beyond the scope of ACMI and out into the wider world of moving images. These links and suggestions come not from algorithms, but from human beings: they are drawn from the expertise of ACMI staff.

If you’d used your Lens to click onto a costume display featuring the bloodstained dress worn by Mia Wasikowska in Judy and Punch, for example, the follow-up suggestions could include scenes from Carrie and The Shining, but also lead you to Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the video game Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.

Beyond the central exhibition, there have been various changes to what ACMI does and how it presents itself. Some aspects of its work that would normally take place behind closed doors have been brought into the open. Sedgwick was inspired by a San Francisco science museum called the Exploratorium.

“In the middle of that museum, they had a lab where their staff were prototyping and developing new exhibitions. So we decided we would set up the Media Preservation Lab, and make it visible for the public.” Visitors will see staff hard at work on the tasks of digitisation and preservation, something that’s a central ACMI concern. Celluloid might be a fragile medium but video games and time-based media art have particular preservation challenges that ACMI is actively engaged in tackling in collaboration with several academic institutions.

Digital instability and the constant turnover of hardware and software are issues that affect us all, in a world where so much of what we do, make, record and preserve exists in the digital realm. “How do we preserve our own memories, our nation’s memories? I think that’s a really important conversation to have,” Sedgwick says.

There are also new education spaces where students and teachers can explore technology and creative processes. Expanding online resources is also part of the education brief.

There have been incremental physical changes at ACMI since the 2002 opening. Established in a location that was not designed to hold it, the museum could be a disconcerting space to negotiate; first-time visitors could be forgiven for wondering where they were or what this building held.

The new ACMI has a coherent, elegant design, and much clearer sign-posting at its two entry points. And while its two cinemas remain essentially the same, there is now the capacity to project in high-quality 4K resolution. The reopening program, Love And Neon, is a season of 11 films from Hong Kong master Wong Kar-wai that includes 4K restorations of his beautiful, delirious and distinctive work. ACMI screened Australia’s first Wong retrospective in 2005, so it’s a fitting way to restart.

“The cinemas are as much a part of that story of exhibiting and collecting as the exhibitions are,” Tutton says.

ACMI reopens on February 11 – timed free visits can be booked online at acmi.net.au.

See also: ACMI opens doors to an exciting world of screen culture

Council of Australasian Museum Directors, c/o Ms Daryl Karp, Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House PO Box 3934 Manuka, Australian Capital Territory 2603 Australia, © CAMD 2021
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