This October I visited the Museu do Amanhã – the Museum of Tomorrow – in Rio, and was fortunate to have a tour of their new, permanent exhibition, with the museum’s lead curator, Luiz Alberto Oliveira.
The exhibition reflects the museums ambition to be a A Museum of Questions and takes on the universe and man’s place within it, asking questions about where we come from, where we are, and what we want the future to look like.
It is a well known maxim in museums that visitors have the best experience when they have a curator tour, but unfortunately we don’t have the capacity to offer that to all our visitors, and therefore look for ways – often digital – to give as much of that experience as possible. This exhibition was no exception. Digital interactives were embedded throughout the exhibition, and visitors were offered personalised access to this. When we arrived at the museum we were asked for our preferred language and given an access card for engaging with the museum’s interactives, which, among other things, automatically switched the interactive stations to your preferred language.
As well as facilitating the visitor experience, the museum’s access card approach gives the museum data on which content visitors found the most engaging and spent the most time with, how long visitors spent in different areas, and how they moved through the exhibition space. This interaction was largely frictionless, encouraging visitors to use the facility, unlike when visitors are asked to engage in this manner using their own mobile device.
The exhibition started with an 8 minute, immersive, 360 degree film experience that aimed to take the visitor of a journey from the furthest reaches of the galaxy to the subatomic level, emphasising that everything in the universe is made from the same stuff and interconnected. Directed by Ricardo Laganaro and with Fernando Meirelles as executive producer, Oliviera explained that the purpose of this experience is to take the visitor out of their day to day lives, and help them to think about their place in the greater cosmos, preparing them for the experience to follow. I watched the film twice, and I enjoyed it more the first time, not only because it was new and unexpected, but we were in the space at the same time as a school group. The students often reacted with sounds of wonder and amazement; their enthusiasm was infectious.
When we exited the film space we were confronted by an array of interactive tables that explored cosmic horizons. Visitors are invited to use their access card to engage with the tables to learn facts about distances, velocities and durations, comparing the facts in unexpected and surprising contexts. There were many layers of content available, and it was possible to track how much content you had engaged with via your card, and revisit it later. The depth of the content felt heavy going at this early stage of the exhibition, but observation suggested that people were engaging, and as a permanent display there was the hope that at least some visitors would return, and have new things to learn.
After exploring the cosmos, visitors were invited to focus down on the Earth, and the unique conditions that fostered life on our planet, and in particular, the development of human intelligence. The section featured three large cubes, one each for Life, Matter and Mind.
The exterior of the Life cube represented DNA, a common feature of life, and the inside showed the variety of life, allowing visitors to dive into different ecosystems, see the animals that live there are how they interact. The interactives allowed visitors to take an animal out of the ecosystem and see the broader impact that this would have.
Inside the Matter cube was a breath-taking art installation by American artist Daniel Wurtzel representing the Earth’s climate through dancing fabric. The installation was responsive, moving differently based on the number of people in the room, and the amount of fabric in the art work.
The final cube, Mind, provided information about the working of the human brain on the outside, and on the inside celebrated the diversity of humanity in a labyrinth of over a thousand images from all around the world of how human beings celebrate, live, love, speak, eat, dress, and have conflicts. This was one of my favourite sections of the exhibition, and I returned here after the tour to look at more of the fascinating photos on display. Oliviera revealed that originally they had most then twice as many photos that they wanted to include in the display, but this turned out to be unfeasible. I’d love to see the full collection…
The next section, Anthrpocene, addresses the impact of humans on the planet, with Anthropocene referring to a hypothetical geological era caused by human activity – I visited the exhibition with a Geologist, who is not convinced that the Anthropocene is a legitimate geological era, but I think we can all agree that humans are having a significant impact on the planet.
This part if the exhibition features six tall ‘totem pole’ screens, arranged in a circle reminiscent of Stonehenge. Visitors sit in the centre of the circle and watch dramatic scenes showing man’s impact on the earth coupled with stark data. The scenes cover oil extraction, production of trash, technological advances, urban population growth, agriculture, water pollution and food waste.
Oliviera explained that many visitors have a very emotional response to this part of the exhibition, many being seen in tears. But this is what they are going for, they want visitors to feel disturbed, angry or inspired – failure would be indifference.
In this next section of the exhibition visitors are invited to explore the impact that they as individuals, and human beings as societies, might have on the planet in the next 50 years, through a series of interactive games. One game asks the visitor a series of questions to help determine their ecological footprint, and calculates how many Earths we would need if everyone on the planet had the same standard of living. It then asks what the visitor could change to reduce their environmental impact.
Also in the area is a ‘Sims’-esque game where four players work together to ensure the sustainability of a virtual civilisation. The players are asked to make decisions based on the physical, population, financial and natural resources of the civilsations, such as whether to invest in cycle lanes or super highways, fossil fuels or nuclear power. The players are shown whether their decision drive the planet towards sustainability or extinction.
The final section of the exhibition is placed within a wooden longhouse lit by over 1,000 light bulbs (I wonder what the ecological footprint of that is! I’m sure it is an eco-friendly design…) which turn on and off or change colour in sync with music. Designed by architect Mônica Lobo, designer Muti Randolph and composer Lucas Marcier, it is mean to be reminiscent of an ‘oca’, an indigenous house of knowledge where elders share information with the young. In the centre of the space is the only object in the entire exhibition, a ‘tjurunga’, which is an object used by Australian aborigines to symbolize the passing on of knowledge. The goal of this final section of the exhibition is to transition the visitor back into the world, but carrying the idea that tomorrow starts now, and with the choices that we make today, and that today is the time for action.
For this to be the only object in an entire museum exhibition is anathema to western museum audiences, where most museum exhibitions are object based – in fact it might be possible to argue that Amanhã is not a museum in the sense that we use the word in English, as it does not hold an object collection. But, if the purpose of a museum is to be a place of learning and inspiration, knowledge and trust, then Amanhã certainly qualifies.