Smithsonian To Debut Groundbreaking ‘FUTURES’ Exhibition for Its 175th Anniversary

Historic Arts and Industries Building To Reopen for First Time in Nearly Two Decades With Smithsonian’s First Large-Scale Exploration of the Future
February 23, 2021
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Smithsonian Arts and Industries building with garden in front

Smithsonian Arts + Industries Building by Roy Blunt

The historic Arts and Industries Building (AIB), America’s first National Museum, will temporarily reopen in November for the first time in nearly two decades for the debut exhibition “FUTURES,” the Smithsonian’s first major building-wide exploration of the future. This groundbreaking new museum experience will fuse awe-inspiring art, technology, design and history, inviting visitors to dream big and imagine not just one but many possible futures on the horizon. “FUTURES” will be free and open to time travelers everywhere through July 2022.

A centerpiece of the Smithsonian’s landmark 175th anniversary year, “FUTURES” will spotlight the Institution’s historic role as an engine of the future. Since 1846, the Smithsonian’s mission for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge” has led to remarkable leaps—exploring the beginnings of the universe, saving species from extinction, preserving the full diversity of human culture and bringing new methods of digital learning to billions around the globe.

Part exhibition, part festival, “FUTURES” will present nearly 32,000 square feet of new immersive site-specific art installations, interactives, working experiments, inventions, speculative designs and “artifacts of the future,” as well as historic objects and discoveries from 23 of the Smithsonian’s museums, major initiatives and research centers. Of the nearly 150 objects on view, several are making their public debut: an artificial intelligence (AI)-driven rover from Alphabet’s X that could transform agriculture; a Planetary Society space sail for deep space travel; a Loon internet balloon; the first full-scale Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome built in North America; the world’s first controlled thermonuclear fusion device; and more.

“FUTURES” will also debut a series of new art commissions and a selection of large-scale technology projects to be unveiled throughout 2021. Each offers visitors a chance to encounter emerging trends in human creativity and connection that are actively transforming the world—from artworks based on intelligent technology, to new ways to design cities, to hyper-fast travel and air taxis. A cutting-edge mobile experience by award-winning firm Goodby Silverstein & Partners and a national film project will also be announced in the coming months.

Brought to life by David Rockwell and his award-winning architecture and design firm Rockwell Group, “FUTURES” will unfold across four unique environments, one in each of AIB’s four monumental halls: Past Futures, Futures that Inspire, Futures that Unite and Futures that Work. Rather than attempt prediction, these alternate ways of thinking about the future emphasize that there are many possible futures, which will be determined by individual and collective decisions. Rockwell Group’s dynamic exhibition pavilions reinforce each hall’s theme and will double as an experiment in sustainable building design, using unconventional materials such as mushroom mycelium bricks, solar cells and recycled and recyclable resin and metal. The LAB, Rockwell Group’s design innovation studio, is developing a digital ecosystem to enhance the visitor experience.

Visitors are encouraged to expect the unexpected. In Past Futures, they can discover an experimental Alexander Graham Bell telephone, the Bakelizer—a machine used at the birth of synthetic plastics, early androids and barrier-breaking rockets, and activist art and ephemera created by groups striving to change the course of their own futures. Futures that Inspire will feature worldbuilding Afrofuturist artists, AI that helps people meditate and Indigenous storytelling for the 21st century. In Futures that Unite, visitors can see a COVID-friendly support robot that reduces loneliness, a video game that can be played using the eyes and biohacked insulin. And in Futures that Work, visitors can experience future foods, a spacesuit that fits like a second skin, a working water harvester pulling liquid from air, an algae bioreactor that cleans as much air as a 400-acre forest and much more.

“FUTURES” will also showcase stories of future-makers: inventors and creators, activists and organizers of communities at the margins, working tirelessly towards a more equitable, peaceful and sustainable world. Instead of simply asking what kind of future people want to live in, visitors will be challenged to consider their role in shaping it—glimpsing how the visions of previous generations have shaped today as they choose their own version of humanity’s next chapter.

“In a world that feels perpetually tumultuous, there is power in imagining the future we want, not the future we fear,” said Rachel Goslins, director of AIB. “For 175 years, the Smithsonian has been helping people better understand who we are, where we have been and where we want to go. With ‘FUTURES,’ we want to invite all visitors to discover, debate and delight in the many possibilities for our shared future. There’s no place better to do this than in the Arts and Industries Building, the nation’s original home for big ideas.”

For more information, the public can visit

Virtual “FUTURES”

An interactive mobile “FUTURES” guide will launch late summer 2021 in advance of the exhibition opening—a cutting-edge invitation to explore the “FUTURES” anytime, anywhere with people’s future selves as guides.

Special Events and Programs

A full slate of dynamic, future-forward performances, pop-ups, virtual events, workshops and late-night experiences will be announced at a future date. 


“FUTURES” is curated by a multi-disciplinary team of collaborators with broad expertise: Glenn Adamson (history of the future), Ian Brunswick (science consulting curator), Brad MacDonald (creative digital media), Ashley Molese (“FUTURES” and contemporary art), Monica O. Montgomery (programming and social justice) and Richard Kurin (Smithsonian history consulting curator), with the support of the wider Smithsonian community of experts and outside advisors.

“FUTURES” is made possible by a select group of partners and supporters: Autodesk, Amazon Web Services, Bell Textron Inc., Jacqueline B. Mars, John and Adrienne Mars, the Embassy of the State of Qatar, David M. Rubenstein and SoftBank Group Corp. Major support is provided by the Annenberg Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, Kevin S. Bright and Robert Kogod. Funding is also provided by John Brock III, Wendy Dayton, Nancy Hogan, David G. Johnson and the Lyda Hill Foundation. Additional support is provided by Vin Di Bona, Jorge Puente and Ivan Selin.

Major partners and lenders also include The Alliance for Media Arts + Culture, Arizona State University’s Center for Science and Imagination, Danae Inc. 3D Printing, Dava Newman and MIT AeroAstro, Ecovative, Games for Change, Hypergiant, The Institute for the Future, Loon, Never Alone/E-Line Media, Novalia, Oceanix/BIG Bjarke Ingels Group, Open Insulin and the Baltimore Underground Science Space, The Planetary Society, Q the Genderless Voice/VICE Media, Roomie Robotics, SpecialEffect, Twitch, Virgin Hyperloop, WahaWater Harvester Inc., Hansjörg Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University and X the Moonshot Factory.

Artists and creators currently slated to be featured include Madeline Ashby, Raoul Bretzel and Anna Citelli, Tega Brain, Stephanie Dinkins, Nettrice Gaskins, Alexandra Genis, Emanuel Gollob, Porfirio Gutierrez, Ai Hasegawa, Brian Miller, Tochi Onyebuchi, Elise Palomino, Arnaldo Pomodoro, Stacey Robinson, Stephanie Syjuco and Jeffrey Veregge. Additional site-specific commissions will be announced later in 2021.

About the Arts and Industries Building

The Arts and Industries Building (AIB) opened in 1881 as the country’s first National Museum, an architectural icon in the heart of the National Mall. Its soaring halls introduced millions of Americans to wonders about to change the world—Edison’s lightbulb, the first telephone, Apollo rockets. Dubbed the “Palace of Wonders” and “Mother of Museums,” AIB incubated new Smithsonian museums for over 120 years before finally closing to the public in 2004. “FUTURES” is a milestone first step in the long-term plan to renovate and permanently reopen this landmark space.

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