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Smithsonian’s ‘Futures’ exhibit encourages visitors to be innovators

UPDATED: Tue., Dec. 7, 2021

By Connie Dufner Washington Post

The coolest thing about the new “Futures” exhibit at the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building isn’t the fact that you walk on fossils, play Minecraft with your eyeballs or take a selfie with a flying taxi.

The clue starts with the name, particularly the last letter: The future is plural, and everyone’s included.

“The future is not a fact but a series of decisions we make every day,” said Monica Montgomery, social justice, special projects and program curator for the museum. “And we all have the power to shape it.”

“Futures” marks the temporary reopening of the building, closed since 2004 for structural repairs. It is the Smithsonian’s second-oldest building and the one considered the first national museum, said Allison Peck, director of external affairs.

The Arts and Industries Building, which opened in 1881, pioneered the idea that museums are for spreading knowledge to the public, not just storehouses for private collectors or centers for research, she said. In fact, it was one of the first museums to use descriptive labels in exhibits. Many Smithsonian treasures first appeared in the building, such as an early Thomas Edison lightbulb, the first telephone and Apollo rockets. Fun fact: Marble floor tiles in the building came from a prehistoric quarry and show evidence of marine life.

“The idea was to come here and be inspired, and then go off and discover something. It was the nation’s way of saying knowledge could be for everyone,” Peck said.

“Futures,” part of the Smithsonian’s 175th anniversary celebration, has more than 150 objects and ideas that combine technology, art, design and history. The exhibit spreads across four halls with themes: Futures Past, Futures That Inspire, Futures That Unite and Futures That Work.

You can interact with the exhibits by gesturing with your hands, talking or moving your eyes. In the rotunda, artist Suchi Reddy’s “me + you” invites you to describe your vision of the future, then translates your words into colors that dance, fountainlike, on its central column.

Look at Nettrice Gaskins’s portraits, created with artificial intelligence, for electrical wires in Alexander Graham Bell’s hair and a street map for Floyd McKissick, the founder of Soul City, North Carolina, in the 1970s — an ideal place for Black people to live.

The exhibit highlights futuristic projects that are underway:

• How will food continue to shape our lives? Mushroom bricks are used in some areas of the world and in the Futures exhibit.

• Where will we live? Perhaps in Oceanix City, a sustainable floating community envisioned by U.N.-Habitat.

• How will we travel? In the Virgin Hyperloop Pegasus pod that travels hundreds of miles per hour or the Bell Nexus self-driving hybrid-electric air taxi?

• Who will be our friend? The Roomie Robot, developed by a Mexican technology company, is a therapeutic buddy that talks to you through language-processing software.

• How will we have fun? Peek behind the costumes of “Eternals,” the movie by Marvel, and talk to one of the movie’s characters through immersive augmented reality.

“This is the free-choice exhibit,” said Ashley Meadows, director of visitor engagement. “Pick and choose your experience.”

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