FUTURES installation view, Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building Credit: Courtesy of Albert Ting

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After a massive renovation, the doors of the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building will be flung open at last on Nov. 20. Since 2004, the building has been an empty space along the National Mall, unused save for a handful of events over the past few years. Originally built to house the exhibits for America’s first World’s Fair, the museum was given the nickname “mother of museums” when it first premiered in 1881. But this definitely isn’t your mother’s museum. Appropriately titled FUTURES, the first exhibit, which opens this weekend, is almost assertively modern in look, feel, and philosophy.

FUTURES is organized so that each wing of the building is devoted to a different concept, with a gorgeous rotunda connecting them in the middle. Wander through one archway to explore solutions-focused “Futures That Work,” another to experience the interactive and interpersonal “Futures That Unite,” and another to experience the imagination of “Futures That Inspire.” Just inside the entrance, in the “Futures Past” section, lie World Fair relics that hint at the museum’s original purpose, as well as what the exhibit is reaching for: a sense of wonder at technological possibilities and human potential. 

The hall has been crammed with a plethora of fascinating objects, including a Virgin hyperloop train car, washing machines that use a closed waste water system to sustain a mini wetland, compostable bricks made from fungus, a light installation that changes based on viewer input, and even some Marvel fan service in the form of costumes from the movie Eternals. Many of the works are speculative or prototypical, not necessarily ready for primetime but still thought-provoking. Plenty are in use out in the world already, and visitors can actually interact with some of them.

There’s an emphasis on stuff that’s hands on, kid-friendly, and tons of fun to play with. Try playing Minecraft with eye movement instead of controllers (Eyecraft software), chat with an artificial intelligence program that’s been uploaded with three generations of oral histories (“Not the Only One (N’TOO)” by Stephanie Dinkins), or hang out with a motion capture robot sculpture that responds to body movement (“Doing Nothing with AI”). Throughout the exhibit are digital columns where visitors can use motion capture to answer questions about their own visions and outlooks of the future, and results get aggregated and displayed near the entrance.   

FUTURES makes clever use of unexpected items from across the Smithsonian Institution. Far-out works of art, like an oil painting from 1960 titled “Space Sail of the Future” by Robert McCall, hangs alongside a scale model of the LightSail 2, which is currently orbiting Earth on the power of sunlight alone. Even Smithsonian research initiatives, which usually operate somewhat under the radar, are given a chance to shine here. The average visitor may not know about the huge array of frozen tissue samples and specimens among the collections, but an exhibit about rescuing endangered species spotlights a biomaterials shipping container and a black-footed ferret like one that was recently cloned from frozen material. 

If all that’s not enough to take in, the building’s facelift is eye-popping enough on its own. The space blends past and current architectural features, like an industrial metal ceiling that meets the vaulted windows and archways bedecked with brightly painted crown molding. 

A weekend of reopening festivities kicks off the new phase of the Arts and Industries Building on site at the museum, around the city, and online. Virtual conversations feature a distinct cast of speakers from Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch to Kal Penn to National Spelling Bee champion Zaila Avant-garde. The celebration busts past the museum’s walls to stimulate the city itself with “FUTURES on the Move” portals in each of D.C.’s eight wards, featuring soundscapes and street art of local luminaries as well as a go-go inflected call and response concert taking place on Saturday evening, Nov. 20. 

FUTURES is on view to July 6, 2022, at The Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building, 900 Jefferson Dr. SW. aib.si.edu. Free.