‘Optimism is the only way forward’: the exhibition that envisions our future | Arts

If America has stood for everything, it is certainly forward-looking optimism. In New York, Chicago, Detroit, and other shiny cities, its towering skyscrapers pointed to the future. But has the bubble burst in the 21st century?

“We don’t see each other on the way to a better tomorrow,” columnist Frank Bruni wrote in the New York Times Citing last month a study that found 71% of Americans believe this country is on the wrong track. “We’ll see each other walking around the disaster on tiptoe. That was the case before Covid. That was the case before Trump. “

This unrest hovers overhead Futures, a new exhibit marking the reopening of the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building after it had been dying for nearly two decades on Washington’s National Mall.

Spanning 32,000 square feet, the show offers a sobering reminder of the past that utopian predictions of the future usually turn out to be wrong. It warns of the danger of unintended consequences: today’s miracle invention is tomorrow’s arch polluter. And then there is a dilemma familiar to journalists reporting on the climate crisis: How to draw the line between alarm and fatalism.

“It’s a needle that we tried to thread throughout the exhibition,” says Rachel Goslins, Director of the Art and Industry Building. “How can we be hopeful without being naive, and how do we face challenges without creating even more fear?

“Everyone wanted to be part of this exhibition because artists, designers and scientists have a real hunger to be part of a narrative that allows people to imagine the future they want rather than the future they fear. To be part of an exhibition that started from a place of hope for the future was attractive. “

The exhibition includes innovations in protein production, a “bioreactor” that uses algae to capture carbon from the air with 400 times the efficiency of a tree, an alternative to a coffin in the form of a biodegradable capsule that allows a decomposing body to feed a tree, and coin-operated washers that keep it growing connected to it are a garden with wetland plants – “an ecosystem in the flush cycle”.

A look into the museum. Photo: Courtesy Brian Choy

Goslins continues: “Sustainability runs through the entire exhibition, partly in the way we built it and in the materials we use, but also in the solutions we research. There are a lot of really big ideas in this exhibit that, if brought to scale, could fundamentally change our relationship with the planet.

“Not a single one of these things is the answer, but we want people to take it away, that there are solutions, there are answers. We have to choose them and invest in them. “

But there are lessons from the past too: be careful what you want. One of the objects on display is a cast iron “Bakelizer” machine from 1909 that was used by chemists Leo Baekeland to manufacture the world’s first synthetic plastic or Bakelite. At first this seemed like a huge asset that could be used in electronics, jewelry, toys, and much more; now it is recognized as a clear and present threat to the environment.

“It opened the world in so many ways,” says Goslins. “Because of plastic, we can use babies’ artificial hearts and we have cars that drive faster, are lighter and use fewer resources. We can fly to the moon. But our planet is also suffocating because of plastic.

“So when we ask people to go through this exhibition and imagine the future they want and imagine the possibilities, we are also asking them to reflect on the consequences of those choices and how we can act to be our best Find your way around the case. “Scenario of some of these technologies and ideas and avoid the worst-case scenario.”

Stars of the show include the Bell Nexus, a self-driving hybrid electric air taxi with Star Wars grandeur, and Virgins Hyperloop Vehicles traveling at 600 mph through a closed pipe, with most of the air removed to eliminate aerodynamic drag. The latter is shown with a subway-style map showing a ride from Boston to New York in 25 minutes, from there to Philadelphia in 12, from there to Baltimore in 13, from there to Washington in six, and so on up to . provides Seattle.

“Not only is it, ‘It would be great to get to LA in three hours without leaving the ground,’ but it could change the way people live in cities. It could change fundamental patterns of the way we inhabit the earth, and this is where we may need to have options as our climate changes. “

The Virgin Hyperloop Pegasus.
The Virgin Hyperloop Pegasus. Photo: Smithsonian Institution

Other highlights include costumes from the Marvel Studios film Eternals, part of an interactive exhibit that shows how films envision the future, and objects like a 1950’s turtle robot, an AI-powered kinetic sculpture, an experimental Alexander Graham Bell- Telephone, the first full-size Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome built in North America and “the first sexless voice”.

At the height of the energy crisis in 1979, President Jimmy Carter installed a solar panel in the White House; they were subsequently removed by the Ronald Reagan administration.

The focus of the show is “I + you”, a sculpture by artist Suchi Reddy that contains artificial intelligence and is sponsored by Amazon Web Services. It listens to the words “My future is …” at several round listening points and reproduces the speaker’s mood in a display of colored lights and patterns. His interpretations will evolve and become more nuanced over time.

Next to “me + you” in the huge central rotunda, Goslins says, “I saw it in renderings and then I saw it half assembled, I saw it in pieces and now I can really see it. It’s awesome.

“It is this beautiful, inspiring, luminous structure that is intended to capture and reflect the hopes and dreams of our visitors. That is literally the raison d’être for this exhibition, so a wonderful metaphor and it’s also just fun to interact with. “

British writer LP Hartley noted: “The past is a foreign land; there they do things differently. ”The futures exhibition recalls the follies of the past. the 1904 World Exhibition in St. Louis, it noted should mark America’s progress, showing the car, exterior electric lights, and x-rays.

A poster from the 1939 World's Fair.
A poster from the 1939 World’s Fair. Photo: Franklin A Robinson

A sign continues: “But it also showed ‘living exhibits’ with indigenous peoples, like animals in a zoo. The largest was Filipino Village, which contained more than 1,000 people over a seven-month period. This disturbing exhibit marked the recent colonization of the Philippines by the United States. “

The art and industrial building itself has an eventful history and mix of architectural styles. It was the first national museum in the United States and the first museum to be built on the National Mall. For 140 years it was a “Palace of Wonders” with content such as the original Spar-Spangled Banner, the Spirit of St Louis aircraft and the Apollo 11 command module from the first moon landing.

But these objects were scattered in other museums of the Smithsonian Institution, the celebrates its 175th birthday this year. The Arts and Industries Building went dark in 2004, in part because of the need for structural renovation. Now it is awakening again with futures, which will remain open until July 6, and were designed by award-winning architecture firm Rockwell Group.

David Rockwell, 65, the founder and president, says, “I thought the building was an amazing survivor and had seen so many versions of the future and seen so much history. When Rachel approached us it felt like an incredibly rewarding project. I liked the fact that I didn’t know the answer before we started. That is a sign of a good project. “

Like Goslins, Rockwell hopes visitors come with a sense of the possibilities for the future rather than paralyzing despair. “We live in a world where there are seemingly endless debates about anything and we have seen tremendous upheaval.

“Optimism is the only way forward. It doesn’t mean blind optimism, but rather optimism where you can get inspiration from things you haven’t thought of. What does the future look like in 10, 20, 30, 50 years? “


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