Meet Your Local FM: ACMI’s Aaron Hock on bringing moving images to life

by Helena Morgan
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When attending a concert at a theatre, moseying around an art gallery or museum, or experiencing child-like wonder at the zoo, have you ever stopped to ponder who is in charge of the management and operations of this bustling and beloved facility?

This year, Facility Management is launching a new editorial series called ‘Meet Your Local FM’ where we talk with the facility managers, chief operating officers, technical service and safety operators, and sustainability officers of iconic Australian institutions. 

We’re diving deep to reveal a facility’s inner mechanics, along with the who and how of what it takes to keep these special spaces running so smoothly. We’re putting a face to a facility and debunking any assumptions surrounding this essential profession which many don’t know a lot about!

For the first edition of ‘Meet Your Local FM’, we speak to Aaron Hock, the head of technical services at ACMI (Australian Center for Moving Image) in Melbourne’s Federation Square. 

As one of Australia’s most treasured national museums, ACMI opened its doors in 2002 and has been paying homage to screen culture through technologically innovative and thought-provoking exhibitions, screenings, and festivals ever since. 

ACMI Lightwell, photography by Shannon McGrath

Fusion of art, technology and science 364 days of the year

Last year, ACMI visitors lapped up exhibitions such as the world premiere of the Melbourne Winter Masterpieces show Goddess: Power, Glamour, Rebellion, alongside ACMI staples The Story of the Moving Image and Games Lab by Big Ant Studios.  

Open every day of the year, except for Christmas Day, ACMI welcomed 831,151 on-site visitors last year alone. Understandably, Hock’s role as the head of technical services is no mean feat. 

It’s a feat he pulls off thanks to personal experience in performing arts and working hands-on in the stage management industry, combined with awareness of the power of teamwork and collaboration. Hock began working at ACMI in 2018 and confesses that since then, the operations of the museum have not resembled anything close to ‘normal’, with numerous projects constantly in progress and in the pipeline, and endless regulations, processes and notifications informing every technical decision.

He acknowledges that while ACMI is by no means the “biggest or fanciest” museum in the world, it is truly unique and forms a vitally important and unique piece of Melbourne’s cultural tapestry. The content on offer is ever-evolving and interactive and visitors are encouraged to roam freely, giving themselves over fully to intrigue, without the feeling of needing to tip-toe around as they might in other gallery spaces.

For Hock, ACMI is a cultural institution he’s passionate about, and it’s this passion that guides him to keep an “incredible, free, and all ages” Melbourne landmark alive, thriving, and constantly evolving in step with the rapid changes within the world of moving image technologies. As we’ll discover, no challenge is too big for Hock. 

The Story of the Moving Image exhibition, photography by Shannon McGrath

Facility Management: Talk us through your career background and trajectory – how did you become the head of technical services at ACMI?

Aaron Hock: I studied Film and Theatre at university in the United States. My background has always been in performing arts – working as a lighting designer, stage manager and technical director. 

I’ve done a little bit of everything, from managing a touring venue, lighting design for shows and venues and lecturing at university. I even did a few tours with a flamenco dance company!

I eventually landed at what used to be the Melbourne Festival, in the role of technical manager. Over 10 festivals, we advanced and put on hundreds of shows, from enormous international tours to small-scale local works in indoor and outdoor venues. We erected our own festival hub every year, and though I’d worked with riggers and structural engineers before, that was my introduction to building permits, occupancy permits, building surveyors and regulations for temporary structures.

That segued nicely into my move to ACMI in 2018, where the technical services team comprises not only the audio-visual and cinema technology teams, but also the facilities team overseeing building projects and operations.

When I joined, ACMI was in the middle of a $40 million renewal of all public spaces. It was a baptism by fire to learn the interplay of architects, services engineers, external project management, and construction contractors that bring about the museum’s operations.

After some COVID-related  delays, ACMI’s renewal was finally finished and we reopened in 2021. Since then, it’s been a series of smaller build and fit-out projects, capital upgrade programs, and of course day-to-day operations and management.

Over five years I don’t think it has ever felt like ‘normal’ operations – there are always multiple projects in progress, and even more in the pipeline. 

Photography by Gareth Sobey

What are your responsibilities and who are your stakeholders?

My primary responsibility is to manage the teams that keep the building running, alongside managing the technology that gives ACMI such an exciting public offer. Operationally, most of that expertise is distributed in the teams, so my focus is ensuring I’m across everything so I can support the teams and report upward. 

Between museum hours, cinema screenings, events and hires, we’re generally open about 16 hours a day, 364 days a year, so there’s always a lot going on. My team has built exhibitions, conducted offsite storage moves, delivered building projects and cafe fit-outs, constructed external signage and cinema wall lining replacements, and even relocated an office for 150 staff and residents.

My stakeholders are ACMI’s senior leadership team, my technical services managers group, ACMI’s landlord MapCo and our Federation Square tenancy manager, the front-facing visitor experience and security teams, the rest of the ACMI team, and of course, the public who use the building everyday. 

What other departments do you work in conjunction with?

As my role covers building projects, building operations and events, I work with all departments. However, outside of my teams, my primary interactions are with the visitor experience, information and communications technology, (ICT) and exhibitions departments.

Evolver by Marshmallow Laser Feast, Works of Nature, ACMI, 2023, photography by Eugene Hyland

Are there any misconceptions about the technical services world that you’d like to address? What do you think people envision when you say you’re the head of technical services at ACMI?

Anytime you have ‘technical’ in your title, people expect you to know how to make the meeting room screens work, and that’s not true for me! I get contacted a lot about ICT, cloud solutions, and data security, but in our organisation that team sits in a different group.

I think most people don’t realise the complexity of the various building systems running constantly – we have close to 10 primary spaces for events, exhibitions, and commercial uses, all with different needs and sitting inside the larger building envelope. 

ACMI Flinders Street entrance, photography by Shannon McGrath.

People often think that the room they are in is an independent space – a bigger version of their house – but sometimes you can’t just turn on the air conditioning, fix the toilet or open the doors to as many people as can fit!

There are so many rules and regulations, processes and notifications that have to be taken into consideration and so many knock-on effects from one space to another. Additionally, we are tenants in our building, so we can’t always action quick fixes or short-notice changes.

What have been some career highlights working at ACMI?

​​As I said, it’s been a whirlwind, and it’s hard to pick a highlight. It was very interesting to be here to close the doors on the final moments of ACMI’s previous public exhibition Screen Worlds – that ran from 2009 to 2019 – and then to open them again for The Story of the Moving Image. The museum constantly demonstrates a tight grasp on how to explore the history of a constantly-evolving medium in a refreshing way. 

Beyond that, one of my earliest and most memorable projects at ACMI was replacing our external signage at our Flinders Street entry – big lightboxes of the ACMI logo. It was relatively simple in terms of outcome, but involved planning permits, building surveyors, Heritage Victoria approvals, landlord approvals, engineering drawings, electrical work, lighting control and operational documentation – a lot to coordinate for four letters!

We Live in an Ocean of Air by Marshmallow Laser Feast, Works of Nature, ACMI, 2023, photography by Eugene Hyland

On more of a personal note, a few years ago I had the privilege of attending a First Nations smoking ceremony inside the museum building. It was early on a weekend morning, with only a handful of staff and co-tenants circling around, however, it was a really meaningful and moving experience. It was one of my treasured moments in the building and I feel fortunate to have been there for it.

What do you love the most about your job?

I have a group of people I like working with and being in the office is enjoyable. That’s my favourite aspect of project and team management – pulling a group of people together, building relationships and rapport, and following through on a goal. 

I like the challenge of staying organised and maintaining communications across multiple simultaneous projects, and also that there is space for a little creative input in the projects I do.

What are the biggest challenges and obstacles of your job?

Same as everyone I suspect – time and money! Our team is small, and being operational, we get requests and issues from the other teams, with no hope of addressing everything. 

Even if we had the money, there aren’t enough hours in the day – we are open 364 days a year and up to 16 hours a day, and that doesn’t leave a lot of time for contractors, shutdowns and isolations. 

ACMI offices, photography by Nicole England

What do you think ACMI gives back to Melbourne?

ACMI is a very unique place. I’m a member and board member of IAMFA –  International Association of Museum Facilities Administrators – and through online education sessions and the annual conference, I have seen a lot of museums from all around the world. 

There are many great ones, and we aren’t the biggest or the fanciest, but ACMI is very special. The content is relevant and tangible – you might see costumes from a TV show and movie you saw recently or play a video game from childhood. The environment is great – it’s not a stuffy museum where you tiptoe around under the watchful eye of security guards. 

We have probably the best cinemas in Melbourne, and our AV and media teams deliver high-end and high-tech exhibitions and events. I think we give the City of Melbourne an incredible, free, open-to-everyone gathering spot right in the middle of the CBD – anyone from school age to seniors can walk in and experience art and technology and creativity.

ACMI Lightwell photography by Shannon McGrath.

Check out the exhibitions and festivals ACMI has on offer this year. 

BGIS takes on facility management of Geelong multi-use hub.

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