The historic Arts and Industries Building (AIB), America’s first National Museum, will temporarily reopen in November for the first time in nearly two decades for the debut exhibition “FUTURES,” the Smithsonian’s first major building-wide exploration of the future. This groundbreaking new museum experience will fuse awe-inspiring art, technology, design and history, inviting visitors to dream big and imagine not just one but many possible futures on the horizon. “FUTURES” will be free and open to time travelers everywhere through July 2022.
A centerpiece of the Smithsonian’s landmark 175th anniversary year, “FUTURES” will spotlight the Institution’s historic role as an engine of the future. Since 1846, the Smithsonian’s mission for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge” has led to remarkable leaps—exploring the beginnings of the universe, saving species from extinction, preserving the full diversity of human culture and bringing new methods of digital learning to billions around the globe.
Part exhibition, part festival, “FUTURES” will present nearly 32,000 square feet of new immersive site-specific art installations, interactives, working experiments, inventions, speculative designs and “artifacts of the future,” as well as historic objects and discoveries from 23 of the Smithsonian’s museums, major initiatives and research centers. Of the nearly 150 objects on view, several are making their public debut: an artificial intelligence (AI)-driven rover from Alphabet’s X that could transform agriculture; a Planetary Society space sail for deep space travel; a Loon internet balloon; the first full-scale Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome built in North America; the world’s first controlled thermonuclear fusion device; and more.
“FUTURES” will also debut a series of new art commissions and a selection of large-scale technology projects to be unveiled throughout 2021. Each offers visitors a chance to encounter emerging trends in human creativity and connection that are actively transforming the world—from artworks based on intelligent technology, to new ways to design cities, to hyper-fast travel and air taxis. A cutting-edge mobile experience by award-winning firm Goodby Silverstein & Partners and a national film project will also be announced in the coming months.
Brought to life by David Rockwell and his award-winning architecture and design firm Rockwell Group, “FUTURES” will unfold across four unique environments, one in each of AIB’s four monumental halls: Past Futures, Futures that Inspire, Futures that Unite and Futures that Work.Rather than attempt prediction, these alternate ways of thinking about the future emphasize that there are many possible futures, which will be determined by individual and collective decisions. Rockwell Group’s dynamic exhibition pavilions reinforce each hall’s theme and will double as an experiment in sustainable building design, using unconventional materials such as mushroom mycelium bricks, solar cells and recycled and recyclable resin and metal. The LAB, Rockwell Group’s design innovation studio, is developing a digital ecosystem to enhance the visitor experience.
Visitors are encouraged to expect the unexpected. In Past Futures, they can discover an experimental Alexander Graham Bell telephone, the Bakelizer—a machine used at the birth of synthetic plastics, early androids and barrier-breaking rockets, and activist art and ephemera created by groups striving to change the course of their own futures. Futures that Inspirewill feature worldbuilding Afrofuturist artists, AI that helps people meditate and Indigenous storytelling for the 21st century. In Futures that Unite, visitors can see a COVID-friendly support robot that reduces loneliness, a video game that can be played using the eyes and biohacked insulin. And in Futures that Work,visitors can experiencefuture foods, a spacesuit that fits like a second skin, a working water harvester pulling liquid from air, an algae bioreactor that cleans as much air as a 400-acre forest and much more.
“FUTURES” will also showcase stories of future-makers: inventors and creators, activists and organizers of communities at the margins, working tirelessly towards a more equitable, peaceful and sustainable world. Instead of simply asking what kind of future people want to live in, visitors will be challenged to consider their role in shaping it—glimpsing how the visions of previous generations have shaped today as they choose their own version of humanity’s next chapter.
“In a world that feels perpetually tumultuous, there is power in imagining the future we want, not the future we fear,” said Rachel Goslins, director of AIB. “For 175 years, the Smithsonian has been helping people better understand who we are, where we have been and where we want to go. With ‘FUTURES,’ we want to invite all visitors to discover, debate and delight in the many possibilities for our shared future. There’s no place better to do this than in the Arts and Industries Building, the nation’s original home for big ideas.”
For more information, the public can visit aib.si.edu.