Since 2004, the AIB — once the go-to spot on the National Mall for displays of invention and innovation — has remained mostly shuttered, a 258,000-square foot void on some of the most coveted real estate in the world. This week, it will come back to life for “Futures,” an exhibition, on view through July 6, that enlists artists, sci-fi writers, engineers, designers and others to envision the world of tomorrow. AIB director Rachel Goslins likens it to a “World’s Fair of ideas.”
The reopening kicks off with virtual events on Friday starring Bill Nye; an in-person concert on Saturday featuring performances by Shaed, the cast of HBO Max’s “Legendary” with D.C. go-go band Black Alley, and others; and a family day on Sunday.
Here’s what you should know before you visit.
The building alone is worth exploring.
America’s first official “National Museum,” AIB is a fitting place to think about the future. When the building opened in 1881, the Smithsonian primarily focused on research, and scholars had been using the Castle as storage. The second Smithsonian building, AIB, created additional space to keep animal specimens, nascent technologies, geological samples, musical instruments and other objects for research — all in a venue the public could visit. Ultimately, AIB became an incubator for new museums. Air and Space, American History, the Natural History Museum lived here before they found official, permanent homes on the Mall.
Stepping into the building today feels like a revelation — and not just because it remained closed for so long. With red brick and opaque windows, the exterior has an unassuming quality. But the interior — illuminated with the natural light of more than 900 windows, boasting a 108-foot high rotunda, soaring archways, ornate Moorish-inspired stenciling — comes as a surprise.
Designed by architect Adolf Cluss, it’s a mishmash of architectural styles. Officially “High Victorian,” the building has a Neoclassical symmetry, playful colored bricks and stands as one of the few extant examples of World’s Fair-era “Festival” style architecture. Inside, it has an airy, warehouse feel that Goslins calls “industrial chic.” Architectural flourishes allude to AIB’s past: The floor has tiles made of fossils, and crown moldings feature mechanical gears and a floral motif symbolizing the arts. Its shape — a Greek cross that is symmetrical on all four sides — lends itself to a non-hierarchical exhibition space essential to the philosophy behind “Futures.”
“Futures” is more than gadgets and sci-fi fantasies.
When you picture an exhibition about the future, you might expect airborne automobiles and beeping robots. At “Futures,” you’ll find that: a massive flying car fills half an exhibition hall and robots — such as a “Robot Roomie” used to alleviate loneliness in 2020 — come in ample supply. But the “futures” of this exhibition aren’t meant simply to inspire awe. In the show, you can do your laundry with water recirculated from wetlands (courtesy of Australian artist Tega Brain); check out a deli stocked with cell cultured salmon and insect snacks; and meditate with a mesmerizing, AI-powered, kinetic sculpture by Emanuel Gollob.
The show envisions futures of the everyday. In these futures, voice assistants might be gender neutral to avoid enforcing biases, as in the installation “Virtue.” We might drink water sourced straight from the air as made possible by Water Harvesting Inc.’s prototype machine, and tastes might be re-created by shaving synthetic flavor molecules as envisioned by Alexandra Genis’s “Atoma Spice Clusters.”
Goslins says the show aims to get at “how the future feels.” And at a time when doom often outweighs optimism, it has accomplished something by creating an exhibition that feels not just possible but hopeful.
You’ll see objects past, present and not-yet possible.
Long and staff-like, a “diviner’s tool” used in Yoruba culture to advise individuals on what paths to take in the future, marks the beginning of the exhibition. Displayed perpendicular to a red rocket from the Air and Space Museum and adjacent to Arnaldo Pomodoro’s “Sphere No. 6,” from the Hirshhorn, the object’s placement underscores the show’s emphasis on the plural in “futures.”
Organized around values (Futures that “Work,” “Unite,” and “Inspire”) instead of categories, the exhibition is “antidisciplinary,” says Goslins, and walking through it, you have the sense that you’re receiving glimpses of different futures, rather than any coherent narrative.
Barely a year after its first test track run in Las Vegas, Virgin’s Hyperloop train, which could theoretically travel from New York to D.C. in 30 minutes, is on view alongside a round, meteor-shaped, speculative time machine by artist Beatriz Cortez inspired by ancient Mayan storage practices. Curator Ashley Molese describes the objects as “two different apparatuses that can travel you through space and time,” affording the imagined and the engineered equal legitimacy.
You’ll be asked to envision the future.
Throughout the exhibition you’ll bump into touchless, interactive screens called “beacons” that pose questions about the future, connected to objects in the show. (Results are aggregated on a display monitor that you’ll see on your way out.) They ask about matters practical — “When do you think we will be able to print lifesaving 3-D organs?” — and profound — “Do you think your community will have more or less empathy in 2030?”
“Futures” is the kind of exhibition you could breeze through in 15 minutes or get lost in for hours. It’s not just the beacons that invite you to participate. You can play Minecraft with your eyes, build a virtual neighborhood and play “Never Alone,” an Xbox game that retells an oral history tale from Native Alaskan Iñupiat people.
Much of the art commissioned for the show is interactive, too. A fountain-like form in the central rotunda, “me + you” by Suchi Reddy, solicits thoughts on the future from visitors and translates them into one-of-a-kind color and light patterns. The colors merge together on a tall, white shaft, creating — in the same spot that Thomas Edison’s lightbulb made its first public appearance in D.C. — a luminescent, shifting monument to our collective vision of what’s to come.
If you go
Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building, 900 Jefferson Dr. SW. aib.si.edu.
Dates: Through July 6.
Futures Remixed festival
“Unexpected Conversations,” Friday at 6:30 p.m. Guests include Bill Nye, Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III, actor Kal Penn and spelling bee champion Zaila Avant-garde. Live-streamed at futuresremixed.com. Free.
“Call and Response Concert,” Saturday at 6:30 p.m. Performances by indie-pop trio Shaed, the cast of the HBO Max series “Legendary” with D.C. go-go band Black Alley, Mariah the Scientist, and more. In-person and live-streamed at futuresremixed.com. Free.
Family day, Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. In-person. Free.