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Smithsonian relaunches America’s first national museum with Futures exhibition

Futures is the first exhibition at the Arts and Industries Building for 20 years and heralds the beginning of a new future for the impressive venue

Imagine being an agent of the future and choosing between different strategies of how we might live in decades to come. Well, that’s the aim of the Smithsonian Arts + Industries Building’s (AIB) new Futures exhibition – its first in 20 years.

The Futures exhibition, launched last month, represents nearly two dozen Smithsonian museums and research centres highlighting art installations, collections, objects and design; crossing disciplines with bold ideas, historic inventions, and speculative projects that could change the world.

Futures’ mission is to allow everyone the opportunity to explore possible directions for the future and to create a personal vision of the world they want to live in.

Described by its curators as similar to a world fair or giant expo, Futures has historic patents and engineering feats on display such as the Loon internet balloon, an AI-driven rover, a Planetary Society space sail for deep space travel and the world’s first controlled nuclear fusion machine.

The AIB opened in 1881 as the first national museum in the US

All this is showcased in the AIB located on the National Mall in Washington DC, which has now been brought into the 21st century and meant the curatorial team were simultaneously renovating a building and curating a huge exhibition. The AIB opened in 1881 as America’s first National Museum, the second oldest Smithsonian building (the oldest being the Castle completed in 1842). In 1846 the US Senate passed an act establishing the Smithsonian Institution, which means that 2021 is its 175th anniversary.

For its 150th anniversary the Smithsonian held a show looking back and now for its 175th, and in acknowledgement of the importance of the moment, it is looking forward.

“The Smithsonian is at its best when it’s giving people tools to understand their world.” says Monica Montgomery, Curator of Special Projects, Programming and Social Justice. “Futures is letting us explore how to use this architectural treasure of the Arts and Industries to its best advantage. It’s reintroducing people to one of our greatest spaces, America’s first National Museum, for the first time in 20 years. We are discovering what works, and what else we can try as the building prepares for its next stage, a period of intense and thorough renovation and historic preservation top to bottom, for the next several years post Futures.”

Aims + Ambitions

Through the exhibits visitors get to think about and choose the future they would like to see

Montgomery says Futures is part exhibit, part festival and “100% the most fun you can have in a museum”.

The aim is to create fertile soil for visitors to envision the future they want, not the future they fear. This has resulted in the museum rejecting a dystopian narrative and instead aligning visitor experiences with futures that are hopeful, equitable and sustainable.

“This exhibition celebrates the future as a decision and not a fact, casting visitors in the role of Future agents,” she says.

Futures explores the contours of our humanity in conjunction with many themes including AI, Generative Design, Conservation, Efficiency, Sustainable Energy, Futures of transportation, Food, Work, Fashion and Gaming.

Four main halls

The exhibition has been three years in the making

The four main halls of the exhibit are curated around the principles of Past Futures, Futures that Unite, Futures that Inspire and Futures that Work.

Past Futures explores historical visions of the future and objects that were once futuristic but have left a lingering impact on our present day. Many of the featured objects in this section are on loan from other Smithsonian museums and research facilities.

Futures that Unite expresses the idea of connection: who we are, who we want to be, and do the decision we make intersect with others. What ideas, technologies and shirts could create a more inclusive in which more people can see themselves represented.

Futures that Inspire dives headfirst into the future with a spirit of adventure. Many of the ideas in this hall look like science fiction. They may seem impossible, even silly, as giant leaps of imagination often do but, as history shows, dreaming helps us shape reality.

Futures that Work looks at what will our “normal” look like in the years to come? Futures that Work focuses on possible solutions: ways of making a healthier, happier world. Should we slow down? Use our resources more efficiently? Focus on sustainability?

These lenses represent layers of representation to help people see themselves, their needs and their communities’ needs reflected in the future.

Curating through a pandemic

As part of the exhibition the impressive AIB also had to be refurbished

These fundamental questions about how we will live in the future have been paramount since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic last year and also as recently as last month when world leaders descended on Glasgow to discuss the climate crisis at COP26.

And it was in frame of the pandemic that hundreds of Smithsonian staff and partners, including exhibition architect designer The Rockwell Group, developed the Futures exhibition.

“Curating an exhibit remotely, with a team dispersed across America, in the height of the COVID-19 Pandemic, informed by the lens of racial injustice and uprisings of 2020, political upheaval and a general air of uncertainty, was a lot to combat in the making of the exhibition; but our team rose to the challenge and got it done with humour, hard work and heart,” says Montgomery.

Co-curating the future

Children at the opening choose the class they would like to be taught in in the future

“We paused and re-examined what we were doing several times throughout 2020 and 2021. It felt more important than ever to create a sense of agency, inviting everyone to co-create a future – and have a say in what comes next.”

Futures was conceived three years ago and, outwardly, the team composition and processes might look very similar to other museums but there were significant factors that influenced how they worked.

“First and foremost, we were simultaneously designing an exhibition and preparing a historic building for use after two decades of being closed to the public,” says Brad MacDonald, Director of Creative Media at the Smithsonian Arts + Industries Building. “That means an enormous amount of infrastructure support was being put in place in parallel to the exhibit design.

“Additionally, unique partnership and collaborations allowed the team to think big and develop exhibition content and components that would have been beyond the scope of our team. The team had two years to develop, install and open this exhibit, which is an incredibly compressed timeframe for a project of this ambition. This required the team to adopt a ‘start-up’ mentality and focus on making effective decisions quickly.”

Part of the curatorial team’s processes involved:

Artists were invited to respond to related and urgent themes such as climate, Covid and racial justice

  • looking hard at the content of the show and centred and focused that to relate to health, equity, social justice
  • creating moments for acknowledging what we’re collectively going through
  • inviting artists to respond to related and urgent themes such as climate, Covid and racial justice
  • designing the spacious halls with social distancing in mind

Ultimately Futures will offer visitors a playful menu of options and intentional provocations, allowing them to envision multiple futures, where humankind is more efficient, inclusive, and hopeful.

“This exhibition explores how we relate to one another, and proposes new ways for us to connect, online and off across huge distances,” says Montgomery. “Often the exhibit explores ways we can live in harmony with nature, the animal kingdom and each other, alongside Afrofuturist literature, high speed travel, and tools for efficiency.”

There is also a hyperlocal film festival, ‘Futures We Dream,’ in conjunction with the Alliance for Media Arts and Culture, which has created eight shorts in collaboration with partners from grassroots organisations.

The experience

“Futures is a truly multi-disciplinary exhibition,” says Montgomery. “Rather than starting with a set list of objects, we started with an idea of creating a transformative experience for visitors that evolved into a 32,000 sq foot visual think tank, featuring colourful 3D artwork and sculpture commissions featuring creative inventions of the past and future such as Octavia Butler’s Typewriter and a Bell Flying Air Taxi.”

Visitors can discover more than 150 different vibrant fusions of inventions, art, and artefacts, that colour our past, shape our present, sprinkling in touchpoints for resonant moments of input and feedback, accomplished by using technology, participatory gaming, audio, and written reflections.

“Visitors will see glimpses of ideas to help solve and pose questions around the future, as the exhibit spotlights many voices; and shines a light on unconventional featured futurists, those outside the traditional white male wealthy tech driven “futurist” narrative. With a focus on equity and inclusion, 60% of the content in the show is for/of/by women, BIPOC, LGBTQ+, or people with disabilities and other abilities. “

The curatorial team worked closely with the Office of Accessibility to develop an exhibit that visitors of varying abilities, mobility, and spectrums of interest can equally access and enjoy.

Technology – exploring the future

The future of transport is presented at the exhibition

MacDonald says technology has always played a role in how we explore as well as feeding our impulse to play, to understand and to inspire, which are fundamentally human traits and are reflected in the exhibition.

“Much of the technology has been created to feel like something from the future so we’ve used everything from holograms to gesture controls,” he says. “The technology featured in Futures is meant to spark the visitors’ imagination and also provide a space to reflect on who they are and what is important to them. Much like a mirror, but instead of showing who we are it reflects who we want to be. Who we imagine is the best version of ourselves.

“While the exhibit features technology we were very intentional about its inclusion. Futures isn’t an exhibit about technology. It’s an exhibition about people, who we are and who we want to become. We kept our technology human-scaled so the experience and resulting conversation remained paramount.”

With these goals in mind the team curated the technology to provide moments of ‘wow’ that lead into moments of reflection. The ‘wow’ MacDonald says is the invitation to interact, but the content is what he hopes visitors remember.

“In many ways the technology layer of the exhibit functions as a mirror that reflects back to visitors their ideas, values and hopes for the future.”

Futures is on view until 6 July 2022.

About the author – Adrian Murphy

Adrian is the Editor of MuseumNext and has 20 years’ experience as a journalist, half of which has been writing for the cultural sector.

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