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‘Futures’ comes alive in the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building

The high-speed Virgin Hyperloop Pegasus pod is part of the “Futures” exhibition, which opens Nov. 20 at the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Artist and environmental engineer Tega Brain and her installers removed a large glass aquarium from its crate and gingerly placed it on the sun-dappled floor of the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building. They then placed it on the metal unit that already held two white washing machines.

It was “plumbing day” for the project. Brain and her team connected the washers to the containers — including the large one for the plants that will purify the water used to do a few loads of laundry each day.

“Coin Operated Wetland,” one of 150 artifacts, exhibits and commissions featured in the upcoming Smithsonian exhibition “Futures,” asks visitors to consider a “mutualistic” approach to the natural world, Brain said.

“There’s a slowness to it. It is designed at the pace of plants,” Brain said. “It is a compromise I’m exploring, that we need to transform our values and our ideas of success so we can support our ecologies.”

Steps away, another crew was building the platform for visitors to view Virgin Hyperloop’s Pegasus pod, a working prototype for high-speed travel using climate-friendly magnetic levitation that could move passengers from New York to D.C. in a half-hour.

The two pieces are examples of the many futures being imagined in the ambitious exhibition opening Nov. 20 in the historic building on the Mall. Organized around themes of sustainability, connectivity and imagination, “Futures” will explore the potential of art, design and technology with site-specific displays and commissions, including a robotic health aide, a deli case of lab-grown meat and insect proteins, and a biodegradable burial pod.

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The free exhibition will be open daily except Tuesdays through July 6. Along with a month-long opening festival, “Futures Remixed,” it is the centerpiece of the Smithsonian’s 175th-anniversary celebration.

“It’s not going to feel like a traditional Smithsonian exhibition,” said Rachel Goslins, director of the Arts and Industries Building and the creative force behind the show. “Normally you go to a museum, and they take an idea and then they really explore it. This is sort of a jumble of ideas and values and provocations. Everything is the tip of the iceberg of an idea.”

Installing the exhibition — in a building that has been closed to the public for almost two decades — is a complicated puzzle that has stretched over several months. The exhibition is tech-heavy and uses some technology in new ways. It is also housed in a historic landmark that comes with many preservation regulations but lacks museum-quality electric and data networks. And it was developed and built as the pandemic continued to evolve and limit basic human interaction.

Curator Ashley Molese described the installation as a game of Tetris that started with the arrival of the Hyperloop at dawn on Labor Day and will continue piece by piece until the Bell Nexus Air Taxi — the exhibit’s flying car — arrives early next month.

On a recent weekday morning, the shrill bleat of a drill unscrewing a wooden crate echoed over music playing from a small speaker in the building’s rotunda. Plywood walkways protecting the decorative stone and tile floors snaked through the four main halls, where workers in overalls and steel-toed boots labored alongside T-shirted techies hunched over laptops.

The exhibition’s curatorial approach — one of provocation rather than explanation — relies heavily on technology to gather visitor reaction and incorporate it into the experience. For example, the sculpture “Me + You” by artist/architect Suchi Reddy asks visitors to speak their visions of the future into microphones, and then their words are translated into color and light.

“This piece is a beautiful illustration of the future in which we all have a voice, but no one has singular control,” said Brad MacDonald, the director of creative media at the Arts and Industries Building. Other elements, including ones that use artificial intelligence and augmented reality, create a truly democratic exhibition.

“The challenge and beauty of it is there are answers we can’t provide, and curatorially that’s a relief. We can’t tell you what the future will be, so we don’t have to,” he said. “All of the objects are opportunities for people to reflect on what is important to them. I see it as a mirror. The most valuable object is the visitor.”

Goslins puts it this way: The exhibition is as much crowdsourced as it is curated.

“What do you want? What do you bring to it? We’re not saying this is good or this is the answer. We’re definitively not saying here’s the answer to the future. That would be ridiculous,” she said. “We’re saying, ‘Here’s an answer — what do you think? Here’s another answer. What do you think about this one?’ ”

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“Futures” is a coming-out party for the Arts and Industries Building, the Smithsonian’s second-oldest structure, which opened in 1881 as the National Museum and was the first home for many of the institution’s most popular museums. Mostly closed since 2004, the building at one time displayed the original Star-Spangled Banner, the first ladies’ gowns and space rockets. With its stained glass windows, elaborate floor and painted arches, it has an old-fashioned exuberance, Goslins said.

“Instead of a blank canvas, this is like a cacophony of time periods and influences,” she said of the building. “Which is kind of perfect because that’s what our exhibition is.”

The restrictions posed by the building’s landmark status are many: Exhibits cannot be attached to the walls, floors or ceiling, for example, and electric and data systems had to be built to handle the show’s requirements. Because there is no loading dock or backstage (as there are in modern convention centers or other festival spaces), each major installation had to be engineered from scratch.

But the building’s delights outweigh its challenges, curator Molese said.

“There is a whole generation in D.C. who have never been inside,” she said. “What an opportunity to welcome them with open arms and big ideas.”

The building’s cruciform layout — its four wings extend from a vaulted rotunda — were both an invitation and a challenge to the exhibition designers, said David Rockwell, founder of the Rockwell Group. While the design uses different materials and colors for each themed hall, it also embraces the nonlinear conditions of both the building and the exhibition.

“I’ve always been interested in flexibility and transitions,” Rockwell said, noting that the exhibit experience aligns with its subject. “There is no one set notion about the future. You’re going to have to lean in a little. Your participation is really going to pay off in getting a deeper understanding of your role, your agency in [the future] or lack thereof.”

“Futures” was developed during the pandemic, which pushed the team to replace touch technology with motion-activated devices, making it even more futuristic, Goslins said. They spaced out the exhibition to avoid chokepoints and crowding, and boosted the profile of some of their themes, especially health care and social justice. Sadly, she said, they lost a few potential exhibits because of the pandemic’s limits on travel and supplies.

Safety protocols also affected the schedule of installations, leaving Goslins and the teams of installers with little room for error.

“Everything is so damn bespoke. Every single thing is completely different from every other thing, which is not normal,” she said. “Everyone is part plumber, part diplomat, part graphic designer, part physics genius, part bureaucracy wrangler.”

And part optimist, which is fitting for a team that views the future with hope.

Futures Nov. 20-July 6 at the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building, 900 Jefferson Dr. SW.

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