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Smithsonian Will Celebrate 175 Years With An Exhibit About The Future


Visitors to Washington, D.C., know the buildings around the National Mall that hold the exhibits of the Smithsonian. You can see the airplane that Charles Lindbergh piloted across the Atlantic or the chains holding enslaved people who crossed that same ocean.


It's such an enormous collection that it spreads into warehouses and satellite sites. But Rachel Goslins of the Smithsonian says one thing has been missing.

RACHEL GOSLINS: At the Smithsonian, we can tell you everything you need to know about dinosaurs or space flight or American history. We can't do that about the future. So how do we help people get their arms around what might happen and, more importantly, how they might impact that?

INSKEEP: For the institution's 175th birthday, Goslins is overseeing an exhibition called "FUTURES."

GOSLINS: We have so much help imagining what could go wrong, and we don't have as much help imagining what could go right. If we don't know where we want to get to, we're not going to be able to figure out how to get there.

KING: To contemplate the future, the exhibit begins with the past - in other words, past ideas of the future. There was a time when Alexander Graham Bell's telephone was a futuristic device.

INSKEEP: The exhibit also includes futuristic devices of the modern age, like a space sail designed for deep space travel or the world's first device for controlled thermonuclear fusion.

KING: And then the exhibit turns to an era with no artifacts because the future hasn't happened yet. How might we design future cities? How could hyper-fast travel work? Would it make sense to take an air taxi?

INSKEEP: We can contemplate all this at a moment when it's been hard to see beyond today. The Smithsonian's Rachel Goslins has been planning this while most museums were shut down.

GOSLINS: In a weird way, I think COVID made our exhibition even cooler because it forced us to look at contactless technologies, which are a little more cutting edge - haptics, voice activation.

INSKEEP: Haptics - that's technology that stimulates the senses, creating the feel of motion or touch. Visitors can get help from artificial intelligence to go into a state of creative daydreaming.

KING: And when the exhibit opens in November, visitors can also see an installation designed to help people talk to their ancestors, who would have probably been astonished if they looked into the future and saw how we're living now.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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