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September 20, 2022

New Smithsonian Research From “FUTURES” Uncovers a Path to Hope 

Nearly 1 Million Visitor Insights From Landmark Exhibition Reveal Fascinating Insights Into People’s Feelings About the Future  

kids at tech screen inputting information

As the Smithsonian’s first major exploration of the future, the “FUTURES” exhibition at the historic Arts and Industries Building (AIB) offered a groundbreaking look at many possible futures on the horizon. Now, new analysis of nearly 1 million insights from the exhibition’s more than 650,000 visitors offers a potential roadmap for inspiring hope around the future, with overwhelming data pointing to the fact that positive emotions result in greater action around big issues facing humanity. This broad survey could mark one of the most comprehensive glimpses into how people are thinking and feeling about the future during the seismic shifts of the past few years—and possibly one of the largest data collections of its kind.

From November 2021 through July 2022, “FUTURES” temporarily reopened the Smithsonian’s oldest museum for the first time in nearly two decades. The part-exhibition, part-festival brought together more than 150 historic objects, ideas, cutting-edge prototypes and installations that spanned art, technology design and history to help visitors imagine many possible futures on the horizon with a sense of flexibility and optimism. It was also designed to listen, with more than six different types of interactives that invited visitors to share their own visions of the future—from what actions they would take to make a better world to whether they could be friends with a robot. Almost all visitors (97%) reported a shift in mindset or emotion about the future after visiting.

In a first-of-its-kind partnership for a cultural institution, AIB is sharing what it learned publicly and with the Institute for the Future (IFTF), a leading research and educational organization devoted to future studies. This will inform the next phase of IFTF’s field-leading work, supported by analysis from global cultural audience research firm Morris Hargreaves McIntyre and exhibition technologists the LAB at Rockwell Group.

Highlights include:

Hundreds of additional data points range from the entertaining (the future superpower people would most want? Teleportation!) to deeply profound (almost everyone would like to be buried in a pod to grow into a tree), as well as overarching trends (most people anticipate living longer in the future, but not with fewer worries) that reveal how visitors are thinking about the world to come. 

By sharing these insights widely, AIB hopes to offer an example of how museums and cultural organizations can work closely with think tanks, designers and other research entities to create measurable impact that reaches far beyond an individual exhibition.

“The large-scale data and unprecedented insights about the futures that people want that has been generated by ‘FUTURES’ is invaluable,” said Jane McGonigal, future forecaster and director of Game Research and Development at IFTF. “We know that most young people today feel anxious about their own personal futures and the fate of humanity. We urgently need to revitalize our social imagination to collectively create believable images of positive futures. We need powerful new images, stories and possible paths forward that represent a world we want to live in, futures we would be empowered by, excited by, healed by. These ‘FUTURES’ insights can help community leaders and future-focused organizations like the Institute for the Future understand what visions of the future are most likely to cultivate a sense of realistic hope and the agency to act today to make a better world.” 

Data was sourced from questions visitors answered at the exhibition’s “FUTURES Beacons” digital kiosks designed by LAB at Rockwell Group with a script from IFTF, responses to the interactive central sculpture “me+you”by artist and architect Suchi Reddy, in-person visitor surveys and interviews, and handwritten “action cards” visitors filled out at the exit. Additional support was provided by SoftBank Group Corp. and AWS.

About the Arts + Industries Building

The Arts and Industries Building (AIB) is a home for the future-curious. The Smithsonian’s second-oldest building opened in 1881 as America’s first National Museum, an architectural icon in the heart of the National Mall. Its soaring halls introduced millions to wonders about to change the world—Edison’s lightbulb, the first telephone, Apollo rockets. Dubbed “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. For more information, visit Follow the museum on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

“FUTURES” is made possible by a select group of sponsors and supporters: Amazon Web Services, Autodesk, Bell Textron Inc., Jacqueline B. Mars, John and Adrienne Mars, the Embassy of the State of Qatar, David M. Rubenstein and SoftBank Group. Major support is also provided by the Annenberg Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, Kevin S. Bright and Claudia W. Bright, and Robert Kogod. Additional funding is provided by John Brock III, Events DC, First Solar, Ford Motor Company, Wendy Dayton, Charlie and Nancy Hogan, the Suzanne Nora Johnson and David Johnson Foundation, Lyda Hill Philanthropies, Meta, National Football League, National Football League Players Association and Oracle.