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ACMI Mediatheque, photo courtesy of Australian Centre for the Moving Image ACMI Mediatheque, photo courtesy of Australian Centre for the Moving Image

Collections Manager Nick Richardson says it’s a “shopfront” for the nation’s two largest archive collections. A collaboration between the state funded ACMI and the federally funded National Film and Sound Archive, the Mediatheque provides unprecedented access and assistance for anyone interested in viewing archival material from both collections.

To walk inside the Mediatheque is to get the feeling that an intelligent idea is at work in Melbourne’s home for screen culture. Laid out in a cosy but not restrictive space, the centre incorporates 11 very comfortable booths (each seating two to five people, some with universal access), a research desk area and an adjoining room with a 35mm/16mm flatbed Steinbeck for celluloid viewing. Each booth is equipped with a 42” or 32” digital touch screen television, a dual format VHS/DVD player and multiple headphones. With assistance from the collection desk (located at the Mediatheque’s entrance) visitors can access and view any of the 35,000 DVD or VHS films stored on site. To view celluloid archives (none of which are stored on site), visitors place a request with the centre’s retrieval service which can take between one day (for film kept in Melbourne) and 10 days (for film in the NFSA’s Canberra collection).

For the specialist researcher, postgraduate student or film aficionado, the Mediatheque could hardly present more desirable facilities. Using the online catalogue, a researcher can easily locate relevant materials and order them through the Mediatheque staff (by phone or email) for viewing at the centre. If your needs are less clear—you know what you want, but don’t know how to find it or even what the film is called—the centre’s experienced archival staff are more than able to assist. Nick Richardson is immensely proud of his team’s wide-ranging knowledge and abilities. “The value of the Mediatheque,” he emphasises, “is as much the expertise of the staff as the breadth of the collection.” He was very pleased to tell me of many instances when, on the basis of only a few snippets of contextual detail, he and other members of staff have quickly located the film in question. By continually developing the collection’s catalogue in response to these experiences, the Mediatheque team is establishing multiple categories under which any given film is listed, providing different access pathways for different users.

Catering so efficiently to the particular interests of film specialists is, however, not the Mediatheque’s only intended function. The centre also offers much for the wider public. This is perhaps what most markedly distinguishes the Mediatheque as an access and viewing space from conventional archival spaces: it makes a previously exclusive domain more public and inclusive. For so long the dominion of blurry-eyed film initiates, archival collections have now been placed above ground, in the visible world. For the many visitors to Federation Square, for school students, or for those less experienced university students who are only beginning to appreciate the educational possibilities of archival footage, the centre’s digitised collection offers a user-friendly interactive introduction to the historical universe of the ACMI and NFSA archives. Drifting into the archival space, perhaps out of curiosity from a nearby cafe, the visitor can sit down and immediately begin to interact with the touch screen digital collection (which is continuously being added to as more of the archives are digitised).

Richardson has noticed a recurring pattern in such fortuitous unplanned visits. Typically, he told me, the first-time visitor will begin by watching something familiar and comfortable (like Queen Elizabeth’s 1958 visit to Melbourne, or the first episode of Neighbours, or the “Up There Cazaly” commercial). Ten minutes later, however, they have usually moved from the well-known material to engage in something far less familiar, and perhaps far more challenging (historical footage of Aboriginal slave workers for example, or a film by Len Lye). In a few minutes then, history for these visitors assumes a fresh, more complex, open and tangible form. No longer dictated to by an author or commentator, as active participants in the Mediatheque experience their position in history, not in relationship to history, here becomes subject to a sometimes profound revision.

In many cases, says Richardson, such unplanned visits result in an individual returning to the Mediatheque with far more deliberate intentions, to assume a lay role as cultural historian. The effect that such individual conversions have on a culture sorely lacking in historical identity will no doubt come to light gradually, as more and more people discover the Mediatheque and more and more cultural institutions follow its lead. But the effect is equally likely, I think, to be very significant for the development of historical consciousness in the Australian public.

Listening to Richardson explaining the importance that public feedback and viewer statistics have for the Mediatheque’s continued development, what strikes me most is the underlying coherence his responsive approach has with the ever-evolving participatory aesthetic of the moving image. This coherence is, I suggest, a strong indicator of the Mediatheque’s practicality and intelligence of design as a cultural institution. As individual viewers, we see, as many theoreticians of cinema have claimed, what we choose to see in a moving image (though the degree of that choice is dependent on the context in which we view the image).

In the Mediatheque this aesthetic of interactive choice is becoming clearer and more explicit. In the centre’s digitised facilities the moving image is increasingly determined by the eyes, and hands, of the beholder. Not only the interpretation, not even just the perception, but the very selection of what is seen and heard is now far more subject to the viewer’s active control. Call it the death of the author, or the birth of the digital viewer, it seems that recent digital developments in the history of the moving image are now established, refined and reliable enough to constitute the premise of a highly functional and, let us hope, seminal cultural establishment.

Mediatheque, Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Federation Square, Melbourne,

RealTime issue #96 April-May 2010 pg. 18

© Tom Redwood; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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