December 27, 2021

Possible Futures at the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building

What do you think of when you think of the future?

The answer to that question lies at the very heart of the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building’s (AIB) first building-wide exhibition in twenty years. Marking the Smithsonian Institution’s 175th anniversary—and the next step in this august structure’s story—FUTURES considers what is to come within the necessary historical context, bringing with it a measure of curiosity and optimism at a time when we sorely need it.

It is impossible, perhaps, to separate the exhibition from the building in which it lives. This place’s history is woven into AIB’s many names—the Mother of the Museum, Palace of Wonders, Hall of Inventions, and The Brick Tent—all synonymous for a space that has always served as an incubator, a place for imagination and energy to thrive.

It is with that spirit that Rachel Goslins, director of the Arts and Industries Building, welcomes visitors back to the building, stating that you should “come expecting objects and ideas—and imagine what kind of future you want to live in.”

Exterior of the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building with an art installation in front made of mirrored glass.

photo by: Priya Chhaya

Exterior of the Arts and Industries building featuring artist Soo Sunny Park's installation "Expanded Present."

“The Mother of the Museum”

An AIB exhibit interrogating the future is a natural fit for a place that has always been about looking forward.

After the Smithsonian Castle, the Arts and Industries Building is the second-oldest museum in the Smithsonian Institution, built to accommodate the collections donated following the Centennial Exposition of 1876 in Philadelphia. Designed by architects Adolf Cluss and Paul Schulze, the new building opened in 1881 as the U.S. National Museum and served as the location for the inaugural ball of President James A. Garfield.

Architecturally, the building is a feast for the imagination. Symmetrical in nature, the interior resembles a Greek Cross with a central rotunda and an iron truss roof. The immense flood of light permeating the interior comes from a series of clerestory windows—Cluss required fresh air, natural light, and the use of local materials—though when it first opened it already was fitted with electric lighting.

The exterior brick facade includes a pattern of colored brick with gorgeous patterns of red, blue, yellow, and black detail. Over the entrance is a sculpture called “Columbia Protecting Science and Industry.”

View of the ceiling of an old building. The photo shows the central area with a high cupola like ceiling and a series of windows through an archway.

photo by: Priya Chhaya

Interior of the Arts and Industries Building.

The completed structure was, as described by the Smithsonian, “ahead of its time, sustainable, efficient, and stunningly elegant.” It was a true palace of wonders, featuring scientific marvels such as Alexander Graham Bell’s first telephone and new technologies for eager crowds.

Over the years, as the institution expanded, AIB incubated future museums, and in 1971 it was designated a National Historic Landmark. But over the next thirty years, though AIB hosted temporary exhibitions and special installations, its use slowly declined. In 2006, the National Trust named AIB as one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places due to structural and maintenance needs (and a lack of a clear vision for use), and soon after the building was closed to the public.

After years of concerted effort and fundraising, an incredible exterior restoration that began in 2014 stabilized the 2.5 acre roof and over 900 windows. Today, the museum is poised for its next chapter—including a full historic interior restoration—starting with an invitation to the FUTURES.

The FUTURES: A New Hall of Invention

A view of an exhibit space filled with a variety of different objects from a robot form, a metal structure that looks like an oven, and some other exhibit cases.

photo by: Kelly Paras

In Futures Past, the FUTURES exhibition features a variety of objects and inventions from the Smithsonian's 175 year history. In the center is the Bakelizer, described below.

Architecturally, the FUTURES exhibition is rooted in the history of the Smithsonian Institution with four sections along the four hallways of the building—Futures Past, Futures that Work, Futures that Unite, and Futures that Inspire. When you walk through the exhibition about 60% of what you see is of, by, and for women, LGBTQ people, people of color, and people with disabilities—voices not traditionally centered when we think of future making or the future. The FUTURES looks to, as Goslins says, “ask not what is going wrong, but rather what is going right.”

In Futures Past, visitors embrace pieces of the collection that show “the many ways people have tried to make a brighter tomorrow,” while acknowledging how some of these inventions had unforeseen impacts. One example is the Bakelizer, which manufactured the world’s synthetic plastic—a material that now threatens the environment.

Another example is an art installation by Stephanie Syjuco which takes photographs from the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair that presented living Indigenous people as exhibitions themselves and re-photographs them with the individuals hidden from view. For Syjuco, this “artwork reminds us that stories about the future are never neutral.”

A detail view of stacked bricks made out of mycelium.

photo by: Kelly Paras

A close-up view of the mycelium bricks in Futures that Work.

A washer and dryer hooked up to what looks like a water reclamation system that leads to a wetland garden.

photo by: Kelly Paras

This coin-operated wetland by Australian artist Tega Brain uses a closed waste water system to grow a miniature ecosystem.

Each of the other three halls present a feast for a preservationist’s imagination. In Futures that Work we see climate-friendly water harvesters, the Virgin Hyperloop, and a mind-blowing brickwork installation made from mushrooms. “Buildings Grown Like Mushrooms” is a brick wall made from mycelium, the root-like fibers of fungi. As the label says “this organic material can be grown into a shaped mold and is completely compostable…[these bricks] could help to reduce our permanent impact on earth.”

A woman sits in front of a screen building out a model. There are larger screens in front of her along with a wooden structure.

photo by: Kelly Paras

A view of a visitor interacting with the generative design in Co-Lab, one of the installations at Futures that Unite.

View of the interior of a sleek transport vehicle the curves of the Hyperloop match the archway that leads into the central space of the building.

photo by: Kelly Paras

Interior view of the Virgin Hyperloop "Pegasus" Pod in Futures that Work.

In Futures that Unite, visitors can use a collaboration tool with Artificial Intelligence called Co-Lab (a collaboration between Autodesk and the design and architecture studio The Living) to balance and solve big, complicated problems of city planning. In this space we get to actively be a part of what they call generative design, a process that does not replace humans but rather designs cities in collaboration with new technologies. When deployed correctly, this could support the work of architects, planners, and preservationists to build a more equitable world.

Overall, the space reminds visitors that any future we envision needs to be accessible, empathetic, and inclusive, supported by objects like the futurist writer Octavia Butler’s typewriter and a Citizen Science exhibit that includes an activity for visitors to plan parks in an ethical way.

A model of an underwater city that is meant to be sustainable and self sustaining.

photo by: Kelly Paras

Oceanix City Model, a concept of an underworld city capable of supporting over 10,000 residents. This was developed by a roundtable hosted by UN-Habitat.

The final hall, Futures that Inspire, emphasizes that technology is not the only answer and “dives into the future, with a spirit of adventure.” It includes installations like “Never Alone, [Kisima Inŋitchuŋa]” a game developed with the Inupiat, an Alaskan Native people, that shares their living culture beyond their home, or the OCEANIX City Model, which imagines a world where humans must adapt to a water world.

Alone each of the art installations, historical objects, and inventions stand as marvels to what we can achieve as human beings. Together, the exhibit and the building tap into one of our greatest characteristics: our ability to wonder.

What Do You Think of When You Think of the Future?

A view of a very large hovering ship that is the concept for a future air taxi that can work in urban environments.

photo by: Kelly Paras

The Bell Nexus Air Taxi is a concept vehicle that designed to take off and land vertically. This vehicle is featured in Futures that Inspire. In the foreground you can see the costumes from the "Eternals," a movie from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

In AIB’s rotunda is an installation called me+you, an interactive artwork by Suchi Reddy that asks visitors to share their vision for the future. As you stand in front of this artwork, the piece uses machine learning to translate your dreams into colors and patterns, building out over the next seven months (the exhibit closes in July 2022) a collective vision about what we want to achieve together.

For preservationists, it is that question that makes our work so important, but also emphasizes one of the exhibition’s central tenets—that “the future is not fact—it is a decision.” Decisions are shaped around questions such as “Who benefits? Who is left out? And who gets to choose?”

An interactive art installation by Suchi Reddy in the center of a open space with high ceilings and decorative tilework.

photo by: Kelly Paras

"me+you," an interactive installation by Suchi Reddy.

For years the Arts and Industries Building remained shuttered as the Smithsonian Institution planned for its future, and it is wonderful to see it return to life as a structural embodiment of our ability to dream big and our aspirations to build a better world. Here is a space where, as Rachel Goslins says, “art and history [serve as] two forces bringing the country together.”

The FUTURES is an exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution’s Arts and Industries Building in Washington, D.C. It closes July 6, 2022, and includes a variety of in-person and virtual programming.

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While her day job is the associate director of content at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Priya spends other waking moments musing, writing, and learning about how the public engages and embraces history.

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