At the Smithsonian, an Architectural Treasure Looks Ahead

This article is part of our latest Fine Arts & Exhibits special report, about how art institutions are helping audiences discover new options for the future.


WASHINGTON — It is being compared to the waking of Sleeping Beauty.

In just a few weeks, the long dormant, 140-year-old Arts and Industries Building — closed for structural reasons since 2004 — will come back to life, reopening temporarily with a sprawling multidisciplinary show called “Futures,” which explores the pluralism of possibilities in what might lie ahead.

The exhibition and its monthlong opening festival, starting Nov. 20, are the centerpieces of the Smithsonian Institution’s 175th anniversary celebration.

About 150 objects will be on view across 32,000 square feet, according to Rachel Goslins, who agreed in 2016 to take on the task of reimagining and renovating the building. About a quarter of the objects, she estimated, are being drawn from the Smithsonian’s own collection, to help visitors understand how today looked from the vantage point of yesterday.

Many others are items that her team culled from scientists and technologists around the world that pack a pop of sci-fi wow, even as they embody what you would expect in a Smithsonian show about tomorrows to come: exhibits like Virgin Hyperloop’s superfast 600 mile-per-hour train that purportedly “eliminates the barriers of distance and time”; Project Loon, a recently terminated experiment from Google’s parent company, Alphabet, that used balloons in the stratosphere to address gaps in cellular and internet connectivity on earth; or the Danish architect Bjarke Ingels’s model of Oceanix City, a sustainable, floating, five-acre metropolis.

But perhaps more surprising is that “Futures,” designed in partnership with the Rockwell Group, puts art as much at the forefront of the future as technology and science. That is in part because of Ms. Goslins’s own background in the arts, including as head of President Barack Obama’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, and her experience as a filmmaker

Art, of course, is what helps us tell stories, even when we do not know what the next chapter may bring.

“The Smithsonian has always been a place that uses history and culture to understand the future,” said Lonnie G. Bunch III, a historian who assumed leadership of the Smithsonian in 2019 when Ms. Goslins’s plans for the building were already underway. “Art allows me to hear something quite loud that is often only whispered about.”

One of the arty draws is sure to be the exhibition’s venue itself. On a private tour over the summer, Alison Peck, a colleague of Ms. Goslins, explained that the building debuted in 1881 as the country’s first national museum and quickly lived up to its nickname as America’s “Palace of Wonders.”

It was where many people first glimpsed technology like Thomas Edison’s light bulb, the first telephone, Apollo rockets and the Bakelizer, the first machine to make commercial plastic (whose environmental legacy is explored in “Futures”). The building also served a role in incubating many of the 19 museums, libraries and other cultural institutions that the Smithsonian currently comprises.

Shaped “like a Greek cross,” Ms. Peck pointed out, the building was modeled after the pavilions of the great world’s fairs and built partially with the ticket proceeds from the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial exposition. But toward the end of the last century, its grand halls gradually became a catchall for the Smithsonian, with offices, storage and even a preschool. In 2004, structural concerns led to its disuse, despite an external face-lift in 2014.

For the last 17 years, “this gorgeous piece of architecture” has “sat shrouded in mystery” in the middle of the National Mall, said Ms. Goslins, invoking the metaphor of Sleeping Beauty.

“The conversation that we have right now as a country about the future is pretty dysfunctional,” Ms. Goslins said. It is mostly “here are all the things you should be afraid of because that’s what gets the clicks or what’s sexy.”

“We have so much help imagining what could go wrong, but we don’t have that much help imagining what could go right,” she added. The task for her team became to “help people imagine the future they want, not the future they fear.”

The team drew on academic research as well as specially commissioned surveys and focus groups, including data showing that Americans generally try to avoid thinking too much about their own or society’s future and are often pessimistic when they do. The team’s mandate became to encourage hopefulness about achieving a more equitable, peaceful and sustainable world.

Covid-19, however, caused a shift in focus. The curatorial team was already planning to include extant and contemporary art projects from more than a dozen artists.

“But once the pandemic hit, we leaned into commissioning new art,” Ms. Goslins said, specifically of-the-moment work that “would help us process and heal from the present in order to be able to look forward.”

As a result, she and Ashley Molese, an art curator, commissioned new pieces from a diverse cadre of living artists who were already, as Ms. Molese put it, “contending in deep ways with the themes we’d identified.” The artists presenting works created specifically for “Futures” are Devan Shimoyama, Soo Sunny Park, Beatriz Cortez, Nettrice Gaskins, the designer Suchi Reddy, and the creative duo of Tamiko Thiel and Peter Graf (who uses the moniker /p).

It is no accident that both they and the roughly 15 other artists in the show are women or people of color and have experienced immigration at close range. This was important, Ms. Goslins said, because “these are the voices underrepresented in museums, and particularly in conversations about the future.”

To enter “Futures,” all visitors will walk through the artwork “Expanded Present,” a cocoon of translucent plexiglass and dichroic glass (a material forged by Romans and reinvented by NASA) made by Ms. Park, who was born in Seoul and is based in New England.

Ms. Park’s work functions as a portal into the North Hall where a grouping of exhibits deemed “Past Futures” showcases the innovations, predictions and provocations of previous generations, including marvels of the past that have troubling consequences today. (That compulsory entrance is no accident; it suggests that to get to the future, you must first navigate the past.)

From there, it is into the colossal central rotunda, where crowdsourcing powers the two-story kinetic light sculpture titled “me + you,” by Ms. Reddy, who was born in India and is based in New York.

Visitors are prompted to offer their visions for the future into a microphone. An artificial-intelligence algorithm translates the meaning, tone and sentiment of each speaker into a unique pattern of color and light, with each visitor’s visions flowing into a central pillar of the sculpture comprising the collective visions of all visitors over the course of the exhibition. There is even a way for virtual visitors to contribute to the artwork.

From the rotunda, visitors can then spin off in any direction to “choose their own adventure,” as Ms. Goslins puts it.

The South Hall is dubbed “Futures that Unite” and looks at how humans relate, communicate and collaborate across cultures, distance and space, not just with one another but also with plants, animals and machines.

That is where “The Grove” by Mr. Shimoyama sits, billed as an imagined future monument to the collective trauma and tumult of the pandemic, racial violence and the political and civic unrest surrounding the 2020 elections.

Mr. Shimoyama, a Black Trinidadian-Japanese artist from Philadelphia, presents bedazzled utility poles with the kinds of artificial flowers, dangling sneakers and other materials often seen in impromptu urban or roadside memorials — particularly those for victims of violence, whose stories have been a common theme in his work.

“I had difficulty imagining moving forward without acknowledging problems of today,” he said in an email. “The Grove” is meant to be a refuge for reflection but at the same time, as he wrote, the work can be seen “as a memorial left behind on an uninhabitable Earth, as humans go off into unexplored territory in hopes for a better future.”

In the East Hall, Ms. Thiel, a Bay Area-born artist of Japanese-German heritage and her partner (both based in Germany) have contributed a digital work to “Futures that Inspire.”

Their piece, titled “ReWildAR,” uses augmented reality to let visitors imagine a “re-wilding” of the building if abandoned and overtaken by the species that would likely repopulate the region if the climate crisis proceeds apace.

In the West Hall, for “Futures That Work” — centered on problem-solving technologies — Beatriz Cortez’s three welded steel sculptures are collectively titled “Chultún El Semillero.” They reimagine the ingenious underground storage used by the Maya in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica as a novel vehicle for a sort of speculative time travel to “a future that can hold all of us, our technologies and knowledges, our collective survival,” wrote Ms. Cortez, an El Salvador-born, Los Angeles-based artist.

Ms. Gaskins, who is based in Baltimore and Boston, has a series of portraits titled “Featured Futurists.” She used a neural network application called Deep Dream to create portraits on metal of people including the Afrofuturist author Octavia E. Butler and the Covid-19 vaccine researchers Barney Graham and Kizzmekia S. Corbett.

When the “Futures” exhibition ends next July, the building will close again, too, for the significant structural renovation that will allow it to be reopened to the public permanently, possibly as early as 2028, so it can remain as vital an institution into the 21st century as it proved in the 19th and the 20th.

How, exactly, remains to be been. There has been discussion “of this always being an incubator,” Mr. Bunch said, or perhaps a national hub for research and collaborative action to help address concerns raised by “Futures,” as Ms. Goslins suggests.

No matter what, “the Smithsonian is committed to ensuring the public has access to the wonders of that building,” Mr. Bunch said.

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