ACMI is the only institution of its kind in Australia. Susan Bye (Senior Producer, Education) charts the growth of the museum from its inception as the State Film Centre of Victoria, through to our redevelopment phase today, and into the future.
If we travel back to the very beginnings of ACMI, we arrive at the doorstep of 110 Victoria St, Carlton, home of the State Film Centre (SFC). Established in 1946, its ambitious remit was to support the Australian National Film Board “to expand, promote, assist and coordinate the production, distribution and importation of films for school and adult education, social development, international understanding, trade and tourist expansion and immigration.”
Early on, SFC’s collection focused on documentary and educational films, providing schools, community groups and film societies with screening content. This state-wide initiative operated within a complex network of community groups, rural and regional offices and touring facilities, state government departments and international support services, to provide a government-supported focus for screen literacy in the state of Victoria  . The following silent film documents the activities of the SFC in the 1960s (including an URGENT delivery to add a bit of drama) and gives a sense of the energy and commitment dedicated to this operation.
Not only did the SFC build and curate an extensive library of titles as part of its collection but also, where necessary, provided the equipment to screen the films. A key plank of this investment in film for the public good was making it accessible to the regions through mobile projection units.
The breadth and scale of this state-funded contribution to screen culture and education can be seen in renowned animator Alex Stitt’s funky 1980 advert describing lending services (Stitt is better known for the ‘Life. Be in it.’ and ‘Slip! Slop! Slap!’ adverts).
The SFC also invested in and assisted moving image production. Initially, it provided centralised film production facilities for State Government Departments, and eventually supported the newly fledged TV service in the 1950s and Victorian film production in the 1960s onwards. In 1983, legislation gave the State Film Centre a more expansive identity which recognised the importance of film as a form of entertainment as well as education. This decision paved the way for present-day ACMI with our rejection of imposed cultural categories of value – we don’t draw distinctions between “high” or “low” culture, or between education and entertainment.
This transitional period also saw the rise of the video recorder and player, an innovation that changed the moving image landscape in a profound way. It allowed the State Film Centre to lend out titles to individuals, vastly extending the reach of the collection. In the education context, it facilitated the use of not only film but television in schools as an object of textual study, available to be re-wound, re-watched and studied. With the introduction of film as text within English at Year 12 level in 1989, the State Film Centre Education program became a magnet for secondary schools, and spawned a wide-ranging Education program that targeted primary and secondary students and teachers. To this day, ACMI continues to support VCE film study as a substantial component of our program.
After a brief marriage with Film Victoria in the form of Cinemedia, and a subsequent quickie divorce ratified by the Film Act 2001, the State Film Centre re-emerged as The Australian Centre for the Moving Image, opening at Fed Square in 2002.
According to our first annual report (2002), the newly minted ACMI took a more responsive approach to Australian screen culture through: an ongoing engagement with student filmmakers; the procurement of exemplary short films from the AFI Collection; and the commissioning of an extensive range of video and new media works. Most significantly, this new institution featured the exhibition of moving image works, as well as providing onsite interactivity and creative workshops as part of public and school-focused education programs.
ACMI’s exhibition program was launched in 2003 with the stunning Deep Space: Sensation & Immersion, which explored notions of time, space and movement, and Ngarinyin Pathways Dulwan, a multi-channel work that invited visitors into Ngarinyin country to watch, listen and learn from four Ngarinyin munnumburra – experts in traditional law, culture and art.
Despite the innovation and excellence that marked ACMI’s early days, we struggled to connect with the wider public. Our multidimensional character was our strength and our weakness. Many people had no idea what or who we were. We needed a recognisable identity for people to understand our purpose and to connect with us. We partly solved this conundrum with our first permanent exhibition, Screen Worlds (2009-19), which attracted hundreds of thousands of local, interstate and international visitors every year from 2009 to 2019.
As we fast forward to mid-2020 and the launch of the renewed ACMI, the transformed landscape of moving image production, reception and interaction creates a range of opportunities and challenges. For instance, we are considering what makes us different from other museums and galleries in Australia and globally – not just for the sake of being different but to actively think about the contribution we can make as part of an international collaborative effort. Our participation in this network has sparked an ongoing exchange of skills and knowledge with the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Centre in Phnom Penh, which has inspired a section in our new permanent exhibition.
The new ACMI is a space of porous borders and connectivity, one that encourages curiosity and facilitates discovery. The redesign of the physical space of our building is underlined by the “living staircase” (designed by BKK Architects), which will connect the separate levels of the building but also function as a space to dwell, converse and reflect. BKK’s principal Tim Black describes it as an “urban lounge room”. This sense of interconnectivity will spill out beyond the walls of ACMI with a rich post-visit experience.
The ACMI Collection has now entered the realm of offsite and mobile accessibility via digital channels. Our Collections team are working on licensing works for online viewing and have developed a rich resource of thoughtfully curated home movies, personal and cultural treasures that record life through a unique lens. An ongoing project is making the content of these films searchable – a boon for researchers and historians. ACMI’s first creative director, Ross Gibson, described ACMI as a ‘memory palace’, and within our new exhibition our home movie collection will be presented in a unique installation that invites visitors to pause and reflect on the power of the moving image to capture experience and build memory.
As moving image culture becomes more ubiquitous, fluid and portable, we recognise that more audiences are looking for curated onsite experiences and events, and becoming fascinated by analogue culture. The renewed ACMI integrates the digital with the tangible in a conscious way to tap into audiences’ desire for less transient, more valuable experiences.
We live in a time where the exponential growth of screen and digital culture can seem overwhelming. At the same time, viewers and players are becoming makers themselves, forging active and creative connections with the moving image. In this context, ACMI’s role is to curate quality experiences, assist in the creative process, give voice to diverse perspectives and build a valuable and thought-provoking collection of moving image works for the future.
We‘ve come a long way from our early days as the State Film Centre but we share our forerunner’s focus on supporting audience and industry engagement with the moving image. Every donation, large or small, helps us preserve our collection and inspire the next generation of storytellers, coders, makers, watchers and players. Read more about our redevelopment.
Susan Bye is a Senior Producer in the Education team at ACMI. She is an associate of La Trobe University, co-editor of A Companion to Australian Cinema (2019) and has published extensively on film, television and screen comedy.
 Deane Williams and Con Verevis, Before and after ACMI: a case study in the cultural history of Australia's State film centres.