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Future Shapers Arts Seb Chan
Photograph: Pete Tarasiuk

Future Shapers: Seb Chan, who wants to change the way you think once you leave ACMI

The chief experience officer of ACMI, Australia’s national museum of screen culture, sees museums as curiosity machines

Rebecca Russo
Written by
Rebecca Russo

Time Out is profiling the incredible people who are shaping the future of Melbourne in this Future Shaper series. We have asked a panel of esteemed judges comprising Simon Abrahams (creative director and CEO of Melbourne Fringe), Senator Lidia Thorpe (Greens Senator for Victoria), Claire Ferres Miles (CEO of Sustainability Victoria), Pat Nourse (creative director, Melbourne Food and Wine Festival), Peter Tullin (co-founder and CEO of Remix Summits) and Kate Vinot (chair of Zoos Victoriato help us identify the people and organisations changing the future of Melbourne in the areas of food and drink; arts; community and culture; civics; and sustainability. In the arts, one such person is Seb Chan, chief experience officer at ACMI.

In early 2021, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) reopened its doors after a $40 million facelift. ACMI has always been a powerhouse of a museum – more cutting-edge than the state’s other museums, and arguably cooler than the galleries with which it shares a postcode. And it was the only place in Melbourne where you could waste away a rainy day playing video games and call it “educational”.

“I often talk about museums and galleries as curiosity machines,” says Seb Chan, chief experience officer at ACMI. “If museums and galleries are effective, they raise the curiosity of the visitor.”

As chief experience officer, or CXO, Chan is responsible for the experience and engagement division of the institution. “How I describe it to other people is everything that a visitor does before they get to the museum, how they feel within the museum, and how they go home with ways to extend their visit and their curiosity.”

That “post-visit” experience was a big selling point for ACMI when it reopened in February. Visitors were introduced to a flashy new technology called the Lens, a project Chan was instrumental in bringing to the museum. The Lens is a circular piece of recyclable cardboard that hides an embedded chip that you can use to “collect” works of interest as you travel through the museum. Visitors tap the card on specially designed plaques and watch it light up blue. Then, when back at home, you can go over your favourite objects, film scenes, soundscapes and more that intrigued you throughout your visit.

Chan has been with the ACMI team since 2015, following stints working for the Smithsonian Museum in America and the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. Moving to Melbourne, he saw an exciting opportunity to build upon the ACMI’s cutting-edge reputation and rework it within this new space.

“I think we often think of museums and galleries as places that take things out of the world, put them in a glass case or on a wall or into a catalogue. This was an opportunity to work in a museum that really is about content that circulates even more in the world around us: films on streaming services, television, memes and social media that circulate on internet platforms. So the idea of a museum of things that are in the world anyway felt to me like a really interesting opportunity to push on.”

There’s no doubting ACMI has done a stellar job in choosing exciting things to showcase, from TikToks and new video games to its current Disney animation exhibition. But a driving force for Chan and his team is how people directly respond to what they've seen at the museum. Does what they're seeing make them curious to learn more? Will they see things differently when they leave?

“I think that the heart of all of this is this sense that culture and the arts isn’t just entertainment. It is how we express different ways of thinking about the future and gives us different frameworks for thinking about alternate futures. We often think about museums and galleries as places of the past, but in fact, they’re ways of using the past to imagine alternative futures.”

As part of his position as CXO, Chan is always working on ways to get more people inside ACMI and exploring everything it has to offer. “ACMI’s collection, ACMI’s brand, ACMI’s remit is very much more approachable than a lot of other institution types in that it doesn’t have that grand façade and sort of history. That can be both a really positive thing, but also be a barrier to more diverse audiences.”

“Also, we’ve started to realise that with the borders closed, without tourism, the visitors who are coming to the museum are all local, but they’re quite different from the visitors we used to get – and that’s really exciting. I’m always interested in this sense of, who is the museum for? How do we continue to broaden that? To broaden that you need to know who’s coming now to realise who isn’t going.”

“There’s many, many people who have never been. Or have been but didn’t realise they’d been. Saying, ‘oh I went to this great David Bowie exhibition at Fed Square.’ It’s like, no! That was here with us!”

Even if Chan and his team are stoked about more and more Melburnians visiting the space, there's no denying that a lack of tourism to a major CBD attraction can have drastic effects. As for the future, post-covid, Chan is hoping Melbourne won't be cut off from the rest of the world for very much longer.

“I think one of the real challenges, but [also] opportunities, for the city and the state is actually to reconnect effectively to the rest of the world and to continue to develop those international connections for the exchange of ideas and culture in the arts. It’s absolutely critical. And I think that it’s been one of the things over the last year of covid, that has become very challenging. It’s the exchange of ideas that makes things thrive.”

“I think that’s been one of the things I really noticed in the city without international students is the sort of disappearance of some of the cultural diversity that I really appreciated and felt made the city particularly vibrant. That’s very important that those connections return because that’s really where our future lies – being connected.”

Read about more of our Future Shapers

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