Docuverse’s final Snapshots event for 2016 saw the non/fictionLab’s co-director Adrian Miles take Seb Chan through his extensive experiences with the GLAM (Galleries, libraries, archives and museums) sector from Sydney’s Powerhouse, through to reinventing New York’s Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, to his new role as Chief Experience Officer at ACMI. For “Museums are Documentary Spaces” we saw a full Urban Writing House and an engaging conversation between Adrian and Seb, with questions following. The informal conversation between Adrian and Seb moved through the trajectory of Seb’s positions at the Powerhouse, Smithsonian Design Museum and ACMI. Throughout his positions an impulse in Seb’s work is turning museums into immersive experiences which exceed the physicality of the museum into the digital, where visitors can continue their experience. This immersive thread running through Seb’s work is informed by a background in music where he sees the DJ as “creating an environment where people are open to other experiences.”
So, the first question posed by Adrian to Seb revolved around his role at Sydney’s Powerhouse. Here, Seb was attempting to see whether museums could be like a party, where he worked on: creating museum experiences that extend into the world, early augmented reality and mobile works, and the digitalising of collections online. What Seb learnt through this position was that it was difficult to take the museum into the world as there are so many other things competing for our attention. From this difficulty he realised that what was unique to museums was “people have already dedicated time to them…so it’s up to the museum to make use of that time the visitors have given them in the best way.”
When Seb was given the opportunity to rebuild and reinvent the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York his attitude had shifted from taking the museum into the world to “building a system for people that changed the way the museum was experienced inside that building.” With the Smithsonian shut down Seb was given 3 years to imagine and develop a new museum that “pointed towards the digital moment.” Through his role as Director of Digital and Emerging Media he developed a pen which could be used as a “magic wand” for guests to immerse themselves within the museum. This pen allows visitors to: draw design items on interactive tables that search the museum’s database, 3D model items, save things, and design wallpapers that then get projected on the walls around you.
As Seb explained, the pen allowed visitors to become “designers” alongside the design objects within the museum. Once the visitors have left the museum they can access everything they’d drawn, saved, and designed with the pen, online to further their design experiences back home. Seb’s major achievement with the Smithsonian Design Museum was a transformation from a place “where you go and look at stuff” into a place that allowed visitor’s to see themselves and their creations alongside other things, and beyond a one-off experience. In providing visitors with a “magic wand” in the physical space and digital access later on, allows the museum to become an interwoven digital and physical platform for design.
Now, as ACMI’s Chief Experience Officer Seb is faced with a new set of challenges that look to what ACMI can provide as a physical space for moving images; when so much moving image content can be experienced easily online. His role at ACMI is developing a form of spatial storytelling that creates parallel narratives throughout the cinemas, exhibitions, and digital apps.
Seb’s telling of his trajectory through each of his GLAM sector positions was impressive and inspiring. Especially in his tackling of the specific challenges each museum posed with inventive ideas that see the digital and physical spaces co-exist in a way that generates an immersive experience for the visitor.
Adrian finished the conversation by proposing that Seb’s trajectory provides a proposition for expanded documentary:
What is really interesting across the history that Seb has described is this movement from what I think of as an artefact centred practice towards an experience orientated practice…Documentary is still very much artefact driven, even though it has social agendas and experiential things there’s still this very strong artefactual basis to the practice. This move towards experiential media is a really interesting proposition to start thinking about what the work of the artefacts and its surrounding ecology of stuff might start to be.
Seb and Adrian’s conversation was the most successful Docuverse Snapshots event of the year in terms of audience members, where the questions from the audience centred upon the role of museums, making interactive documentaries immersive, and how museums should present the process in which something was made as opposed to simply the completed artefact.
Photos by Docuverse’s Nicholas Hansen.