World’s Fairs no longer captivate the public’s interest in the future. People from across the globe have stopped making pilgrimages to one city to admire newfound technology like electric lights, the Ferris wheel and the telephone.
But people from across the globe still flock to the National Mall to visit Smithsonian institutions. It’s something the director of the Arts and Industries Building Rachel Goslins is keenly aware of.
She says, “These days, nobody trusts anybody. People don’t trust the government. People don’t trust the media, they don’t trust public intellectuals. The place people still really trust is museums. And in particular, the Smithsonian. The ability to take that civic trust and use it in a way that is meaningful and important is the greatest gift of working here.”
With that public trust, Goslins and the AIB team were able to present their version of the future at “FUTURES,” which closes July 6.
“We set out to do an exhibition on an impossible subject in an unrenovated, historic building on a super tight timeline, during a pandemic,” Goslins explains. “And I am just so astonished and delighted by what has resulted and how people have reacted to it, and that we actually managed to pull it off at all.”
Their team saw over a half million people visit the history building (built in 1881) over the course of nearly 9 months. Visitors were able to pursue potential “FUTURES” in a variety of fields. The uniting theme, other than the future, was hope.
Goslins tells us, “It was important this exhibition didn’t feel like it had a particular political agenda, or it came from a particular policy place, but that it was able to accommodate the hopes and dreams of everybody who walked in.”
Folks had the opportunity to peruse the exhibit with freedom, finding what piqued their interests and further exploration.
“You don’t lose sight of the forest through the trees, it has to be holistic,” AIB curator Ashley Molese says. “The intersectionality of the show means there’s certain snippets of so many deep dives that you could do. And that was a very conscious curatorial decision to sort of pull together some of the most dynamic things from our checklist.”
The “FUTURES” exhibit featured potentially world-changing technology alongside artistic interpretations of the present day. Memorials to the Black Lives Matter movement shared a space with Richard Branson’s hyperloop. A biodegradable burial method replacing graves with trees is in the same exhibit as a Meta, fka Facebook, trip to the moon. A coin-operated wetland washing machine that uses a closed wastewater system with a sign proclaiming “ATTENTION: NO DYEING, NO BLEACH, NO BILLIONAIRES, NO TECH FIXES, NO SPACE COLONIES…” is in a building sponsored by Amazon Web Services.
“What you have to do is sort of look at the whole and that’s what the work is: It’s looking at the whole and trying to strike that balance,” Molese says.
The push and pull of what society wants (justice, social harmony, a sustainable planet, etc.) is on display with the potential future of tech. In that way, it’s quite similar to World’s Fairs of the early 1900s.
Before you get to any of the future in “FUTURES,” you walk through a small section devoted to past World’s Fairs.
Goslins points out, “We had the first steam locomotive, something which made people billions of dollars on the backs of millions of other people, which brought in huge changes to our country.”
Quite like what some of us think about tech giants, we’re able to question the then-new technologies of the 1800s.
“Was it good? Was it bad? How do we lean into the best versions of what these ideas can bring us and solve for the unintended negative consequences? And otherwise, the real question is about solving the future, about figuring out the future.”
We’re asking the same questions the first visitors of the AIB were asking.
The balance is tricky. Should we focus more on individuals or technology? Is the way out eliminating known problems or developing new solutions?
Goslins expounds, “Our exhibition is doing its job, asking you which of those “FUTURES” you want to live in. Do you want to live in a future with no technology and no flying space machines, or do you want to live in a future with no billionaires, or do you want to live in a future that has the best billionaires and the best inventions and technology? This is the fundamental premise of “FUTURES.” We can’t tell you what the future is going to be or what it should be. What we can do is be curious with you about what kind of future you want to live in, what kind of future collectively we want to live in and try to get smarter about how we have that conversation.”
Unfortunately, this specific conversation is about to wrap up. Regardless of the demand for more, “FUTURES” has to end.
“We’re frequently asked why this isn’t a permanent exhibition. Part of it is logistics of the building and timing of other projects and things like that,” Goslins explains. And maybe most importantly, “You can’t have an exhibition on the future open for too long before it becomes an exhibition on the present.”
“FUTURES” is on display at the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building through July 6. The “FUTURES Forward: Closing Celebration” is July 6 from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. This daylong, free community party is for visitors of all ages with a round-the-clock lineup of DJ mOma, dancing robots, immersive performances and more.