Lights, Camera, Action: Explore the Magic Behind the Screens at ACMI

It's Australia's leading museum of screen and cinema, and it's well worth a visit from you.
Alec Jones
February 09, 2024

in partnership with

Hollywood may have a home in sunny California but Australia is one of the biggest players in the global film and television industry. From homegrown hits like The Dry to multimillion dollar locally-produced blockbusters like Thor: Love and Thunder, Australia is among the shining stars of the stardom scene — and the best is yet to come.

That's not to say our film industry doesn't already have an extraordinary history. And the best place to find out more about it is at the Australian National Museum of Screen Culture, ACMI. From its breathtaking new feature exhibit to its evergreen events, here's every reason you need to book your first (or next) visit.

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The history of the ACMI

Established in 2002, ACMI became a new home for screen culture in Australia, tracing the evolution of visual storytelling. Originally conceived as a hub for film history, it adapted to the digital age in no time at all.

Like the projects it celebrates, the museum evolved with technology. With an ongoing commitment to innovation came a series of groundbreaking exhibitions, including retrospectives of influential filmmakers and pioneering installations like Marshmallow Laser Feast's "Works Of Nature".

Today, the museum stands as a testament to the ever-changing landscape of screen arts, preserving and propelling the industry forward.

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The multi-million makeover

By 2019, ACMI was Australia's leading film museum, but it had its eyes set on a bigger prize: to become one of the world's biggest and most advanced museums of its kind. Thanks to a healthy increase in government funding, the museum was able to undergo a facelift to the tune of $40 million.

The result? ACMI's exhibit spaces were expanded and upgraded, 15 new original art pieces were commissioned, the retail and dining spaces were refurbished, and two new education labs were built. Perhaps most excitingly, the project saw the birth of The Lens: a free handheld device that allows visitors to 'tap' each exhibit to collect an object of interest, adding to a collection you can quite literally take home in your pocket.

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Marshmallow Laser Feast: Works of Nature, 2023, photo by Eugene Hyland.

Marshmallow Laser Feast: Works of Nature

This world-premiere exhibition sees London art collective Marshmallow Laser Feast unveil a showcase of works that muse on trees, black holes, cells, breathing, space, science and more. The exhibit will be calling ACMI home until Sunday, April 14. Works of Nature spans five major pieces that aim to deeply contemplate and appreciate humanity's role in nature, and just nature overall.

You'll be able to see the meditative Evolver, which uses the voice of Aussie screen legend Cate Blanchett to journey through the human body, breath, the origins of cells and the cosmos. Or, there's the large-scale Sanctuary of the Unseen Forest, a video installation about the Amazon's kapok trees. These aren't tiny pieces — these large digital works aim to inspire awe in both their size and content.

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Evergreen exhibits: The Story of the Moving Image

One of the museum's main attractions, this immersive exhibit traces the origins of cinema, unveiling the magic behind the moving image. From the Lumière Brothers' pioneering cinematography to the birth of sound in film and the digital revolution, visitors are transported through the pivotal moments that shaped the cinematic landscape.

Said moments are framed across five sections that tell the story of the moving image, but it's not and endless loop of walking and reading. The exhibit is packed with interactive stations that let you animate shadows, craft optical toys, play with time, craft your own scenes and create custom soundscapes in a specialised studio.

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Memo Akten: Distributed Consciousness, 2023, photo by Phoebe Powell

Evergreen exhibits: Memo Akten: Distributed Consciousness

It would be difficult for ACMI to ignore the massive surge in AI-generated artworks and screen media, so you'll find just that in this exhibit. Distributed Consciousness showcases the visionary work of Memo Akten, a groundbreaking artist and creative coder. Be ready to delve into the intersection of human cognition and artificial intelligence and confront the boundaries of perception.

To make this idea a reality, Akten coded an AI that created over 250 images of octopus-like beings to challenge human guests with thought-provoking visuals of one of the few animals on earth as intelligent as us (at least as far as we are aware).

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Evergreen exhibits: Games Lab presented by Big Ant Studios

One of the biggest industries in screen is not that of cinema but of video games. It would be remiss of ACMI not to include the thriving Aussie video game industry in its exhibits — and so enter the Games Lab. This is a concentrated celebration of Australian-made video games and the machines we play them on.

At the moment, six local titles are being showcased in the exhibit. There's Witch Beam's Unpacking, a cosy experience of designing interiors by unpacking boxes of belongings and the significance behind them, a globally popular adventure that tasks you with building an adorable cult in service of an eldritch god: Massive Monster's Cult of the Lamb — and several other indie hits.

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The on-site cinemas

It shouldn't come as surprise that a museum dedicated to the history of screen culture in Australia has its own dedicated cinema program. This is no Hoyts blockbuster program though; ACMI focuses on the other side of cinema. From lesser-known directors like Chinese underground director Jia Zhangke to the story of renowned artist and activist Nan Goldin in All the Beauty and the Bloodshed.

The cinemas also host regular matinee screenings every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, plus monthly screening programs that celebrate the likes of rising Australian screen talent. And for a very special cinema experience, summertime sees silent films screened in an outdoor cinema with a live band performing the score.

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Dedicated film and gaming clubs

And, of course, it's the duty of ACMI to foster interest in the wide and wonderful world of cinema. For those who want to step it up from the exhibitions and screenings, you can join one of the several dedicated clubs that run events on museum grounds. The oldest of all is Melbourne Cinémathèque, an international film club founded in 1948 that runs weekly screenings of international films for its members.

There's also the First Nations Film Club, which invites Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to watch and discuss First Nations films on campus and remotely bi-monthly. And one of the most popular clubs, the Women and Non-Binary Gamers Club. Exclusive for women, gender non-conforming, non-binary and trans people, the club meets the second Wednesday of every month to hang out and discuss the hit games of the month.

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Online exhibits

If you're unable to make the time to visit ACMI or catch everything on your visit, firstly, that's a damn shame. Secondly, don't fret for you are in luck. Certain exhibits can be viewed online for free on the ACMI website. From the exploration of video game streaming culture and experiences in Emile Zile: We Are Gods to the eye-opening study of the Malaysian Palm Oil industry in Olivia Koh: Minyak Sawit Keluarga (Palm Oil Family) — keep an eye on the ACMI website for exhibitions you can explore from the comfort of your own home.

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For more information on ACMI and its exhibits, or to book tickets to any events, visit the website.

Published on February 09, 2024 by Alec Jones
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