A two-story sculpture powered by artificial intelligence glows at the heart of the Smithsonian's Futures exhibition. Dubbed Me + you and developed by Suchi Reddy, founder of the New York–based Reddymade, the interactive sculpture invites visitors to whisper their visions of the future into its base. Me + you then translates the words and the speaker's tone into a shimmering column of light at the sculpture's core, leaving them with the question: What kind of future do you, and those around you, want to inhabit?
That's the question underlying Futures, the Smithsonian Institution's latest exhibition—and first buildingwide exploration into the topic. Organized in celebration of the museum and research organization's 175th anniversary, Futures is housed in the Smithsonian's Arts and Industries Building (AIB ) in Washington, D.C., marking the first time that the building, the Smithsonian's second oldest, has been opened to the public since 2004. The exhibition, which was more than three years in the making and designed by the New York–based Rockwell Group, comprises more than 150 objects, installations, and artworks, many pulled directly from the Smithsonian's vast collection, that aim to widen its visitors' conceptions about the future.
"We can't tell you everything you need to know about the future because it hasn't happened yet," said AIB director Rachel Goslins. "So we have to approach this exhibition not from a place of authority, but from a place of curiosity. We had to listen as much as we speak and we had to put together something that didn't presume to answer any questions, but that asked really hard questions."
The exhibition covers the entirety of the nearly 32,000-square-foot AIB, which takes the form of a Greek-cross plan. Each of the museum's four halls investigates a value-based theme: "Futures Past," "Futures that Work," "Futures that Inspire," and "Futures that Unite." The halls reflect the curator's decision to approach the exhibition "through the lens of values and not topics," Goslins says. During the years of planning, Futures curators and coordinators conducted national surveys and focus groups to better understand how people understood the future, finding that individuals struggle to connect with and envision their future selves. "We made the decision to ask what kind of future do you want to live in first and then what kinds of things are in that future," Goslins says.
The objects and installations filling the four halls range from the poignant to the whimsical—think wetland–powered washing machines by Australian artist Tega Brain; an Autodesk video game where players can plan their own city; and a kinetic AI sculpture by Emanuel Gollob that mimics a visitor's movements. In Futures Past, a collection of photographs from the U.S. artist Stephanie Syjuco reexamines the painful Philippine Exposition at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, and in Futures that Unite, a glimmering installation from Devan Shimoyama provides visitors with a space to reflect on and mourn the tragedies stemming from racial violence and the COVID-19 pandemic. Reddy's Me + you sits in the AIB's central, 90-foot-tall rotunda.
The exhibition also encompasses a rich diversity of voices as 60% of its content depicts or was created by people of color, LGBTQ+ individuals, women, and other traditionally underrepresented perspectives. "Our first decision was to come at this exhibition from a place of hopefulness, which is not an easy decision," Goslins says. "We have so much help in society right now, imagining what could go wrong in the future ... but we don't have nearly as much help imagining what could go right."
Rockwell Group joined Futures nearly four years ago after winning the Smithsonian's design competition. Although the exhibition was in its earliest stages at that point with "almost nothing figured out," says David Rockwell, founder and president of Rockwell Group. The opportunity was ripe for research and had "many things about it that were super intriguing for us."
Part of that research was learning about the AIB itself. Designed by the 19th-century architects Adolf Cluss and Paul Schulze, the storied red-brick building has a history of innovation. The structure has incubated Smithsonian museums and exhibitions, showcasing wonders including Apollo rockets and an Edison light bulb. The building design itself, which is fully illuminated by daylight, utilizes natural ventilation and was built from prefabricated elements, inspired by the innovative architecture of the 1876 Centennial Exhibition's international pavilions in Philadelphia.
"I knew about it as a place I loved," Rockwell says. "The fact that it was a building from 1881 and it has all these visions of the futures was critical for us; and the fact that they were just beginning to collect artifacts and decide how much would be commissioned led us to create something that would be an armature for many other people to put things on."
So the firm began with the spatial layout for Futures. Due to the AIB's fragile surfaces, Rockwell Group had to stay away from the walls, leading to the development of different pavilions filled with objects and artifacts that acted "like rocks in white water rafting," Rockwell says. "The final concept evolved over many years. Lots of models, lots of sketching, like microsurgery."
In-house graphics from Rockwell Group and a digital ecosystem developed by the firm's LAB united each of the halls, while also offering the firm opportunities for experimentation. The digital components of the exhibits, found in large, interactive blue beacons that orient visitors "like a town clock," Rockwell says, contain haptic technology with hologram displays that visitors use to record their visions of the future. These high-tech elements are something of a first for the firm: "We'd explored with haptics, but not to the level that we're using it here," Rockwell says.
For Rockwell, the Futures has strong ties to the firm's work with theater design, although the project carries a special distinction. "In this case, we're telling many stories," Rockwell says. "We're telling stories that have many different endings depending on how you enter it. But the backstory is that the future is something that involves agency, that there is no linear diagram."
Futures is open at the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building in Washington from Nov. 20, 2021, to July 6, 2022.