Image: Live Art Performance Emoticon by Artist Tom Estes
Jutting diagonally into the sky from the old port of Rio de Janeiro is an other-worldly edifice that looks like a cross between a solar-powered dinosaur and a giant air conditioning unit. Resembling a huge alien exoskeleton, the 15,000-square-metre Museu do Amanhã (Museum of Tomorrow) brought together architects, researchers and government to create a space where climate change and the Earth’s future are its core focus. “We thought, why not make the social and political discussion of sustainability the main approach of a museum?” says Hugo Barreto, secretary general at the Roberto Marinho Foundation, which oversaw the building’s development and partly funded its construction.
Hugo Barreto, the head director of content, said the museum aimed to set itself apart from other science museums by editorializing about the near-term need for sustainability.
“When people think of the ‘Future’, it usually seems very far away. That’s why we called the museum ‘Tomorrow’. It’s closer. It depends on what we do today,” he said.
Mixing science and art, the 230m reais (£40m/$59m) institution devotes itself to a topic that is divisive and often depressing: the need for change if mankind is to avoid climate disaster, environmental degradation and social collapse- and all within what must already rank as one of the world’s most extraordinary buildings. The two-storey building, which opened in December 2015, explores five themes: the Cosmos, the Earth, the Anthropocene, Tomorrow and Us. Inside, a 140-metre-long pearlescent gallery is flanked by parallel spaces where visitors are guided through several future-gazing displays: one is an egg-shaped auditorium showing a 360° film about the Universe. In another, six ten-metre pillars display images and data that demonstrate humans’ impact on the planet.
The experiential art and science museum, : the metal roof is fitted with solar panels that supply nine per cent of the building’s electricity, and water from the adjacent bay cools the museum and feeds its surrounding pools before returning to the sea.
Calatrava’s talent has produced sculpturesque bridges and transportation hubs worldwide, and now, his sustainably-focused museum for Rio de Janeiro will also gain international attention. The architect/engineer has just unveiled his design which will be part of a larger urban design project to transform Rio’s waterfront into a thriving cultural and residential community.
Inspired by the natural landscape of the country, the two story museum features a cantilevered roof and facade with moving elements. The museum retains Calatrava’s sleek signature aesthetic as it seems to be moving outward, pushing out into the bay. The design incorporates a continuous strip of landscape along the southern lenght of the pier adding to the effect of the museum floating on top of the natural setting.
By using interactive exhibits and discussion, it encourages visitors to ponder the planet’s future — something the museum emphasises as a current concern. “The idea of ‘tomorrow’ brings a kind of proximity to the idea,” Barreto says. “The future isn’t far from what we are doing now.”
Ten years ago this was one of the city’s poorest and most crime-ridden areas. Today it is in the midst of a vast redevelopment that should make it one of the most desirable areas in Rio. The overhead expressway – the Perimetral – has been demolished, new plazas have opened up, the poor have been driven out and the wealthy corporate residents, including Trump Tower developers, are being invited in.
To attract them, a new Museum of Art was completed here two years ago. It is impressive, but the Museum of Tomorrow is on another scale altogether.
The main exhibition is almost entirely digital, focusing on ideas rather than objects. Asking questions about where we come from, where we are and where we are heading, it leads visitors along the 200-metre-long hall through displays ranging from the origins of the planet to our possible futures.
The journey is a little trippy, a little hippy, very worthy but almost never dull. The entrance is a “cosmic portal” containing a film co-directed by City of God director Fernando Meirelles that compresses 13.7bn years of geological change and natural evolution into eight minutes of sensory overload projected by nine projectors inside an egg-shaped cinema.
This contrasts with the next three displays, which are more elegant and thoughtful, each housed within a giant cube with commentary in three languages (Portuguese, Spanish and English). The first is an ethereal installation commissioned from US artist Daniel Wurzel that conveys the flux of matter. This is followed by an immersion into biology, DNA and the connectedness of life within and without our bodies. The final cube takes us into the nervous system, human relationships and culture with 1,200 images arranged as pillars of prayer, sensation, relationships, home life and other themes.
Next is the heart of the museum and its message – a Stonehenge-like cluster of 10-metre tall digital totems that literally overwhelm the visitor with data and images about where we are now: the Anthropocene, an era in which mankind has become a geological force. Standing in the centre of these huge screens and loudspeakers is an impressively discomfiting experience. Clips of burning forests, melting glaciers, dense traffic and Brazil’s recent toxic mudslide flash by, along with a real-time counter of global births and deaths, hockey stick graphs of ocean acidification, ozone depletion and greenhouse gas emissions, and the latest figures on consumption of energy, water and beef.
If that is not enough to convince the viewer, a dark and urgent soundtrack booms out as giant letters flash up in three languages: “We have lived on earth for 200,000 years … Since 1950 we have modified the planet more than in our whole existence … We are more … We consume more … More … More … More.”
“We hope people will come out feeling disturbed or inspired but not indifferent,” the curator Alberto Oliveira says. “If they feel pessimistic, it’s not because of us; it’s because of reality … This is all based on the best available science.”
The museum has partnerships with Brazil’s leading universities, global science institutions and collects real-time data on climate and population from space agencies and the United Nations. It has also hired consultants from a range of related fields, including astronauts, social scientists and climate experts.
Projecting current trends 50 years into the future, the next three exhibits in the Tomorrows area feature interactive games that allow visitors to shape different futures. One measures the visitor’s ecological footprint and then calculates how many planets would be needed to support mankind if everyone on Earth had the same standard of living. Another is a collective Sims-type exercise in which four visitors make decisions – on energy sources, finance, land usage – that can enhance or diminish the survival prospects of humanity.
Given its name, many will come to this museum expecting a sci-fi fantasy future of lasers, robots and space travel. They will be disappointed. There is no technology on display.
The lives of coming generations will undoubtedly be influenced by nanotechnology, robotics, droids, artificial intelligence, geoengineering, hive minds, nuclear fusion and other staples of the commercially imagined future. The absence of any substantive exhibitions on these innovations underplays the role that industry will surely continue to have on our society. Yet it also allows for a sharper focus on human behaviour and a vision of the future that is different from those usually presented by wealthy, industrialised countries.
The world already has plenty of gadget parks, science labs and electric dreamlands. Some are commercial showcases by corporations like Matsushita or Toyota. Others are state-funded patriotic reminders of the host nation’s history of innovation (London’s Science Museum or Paris’s City of Science and Industry and Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry) or commercial showcases of national corporations (Tokyo’s Miraikan)
So it is refreshing to find something different in Brazil, a country that is largely on the receiving end of innovation. Like other emerging economies with huge, fast-urbanising populations, the consequences are often environmental and social pain as much as economic gain. Fittingly, the displays concentrate on ecology more than technology, impact more than innovation.
The beautiful structure was built in the middle of a large green open expanse that includes gardens, bike paths and recreational area. The roof is formed by large flaps that open and close according to the intensity of the sun and serve not only to provide shade but also as bases for the capture of solar energy through photovoltaic panels. The building uses natural resources – for example, water from Guanabara Bay serves for the air conditioning system and is returned to the lake. With this sustainable underlying energy-conscious structure, the museum seeks LEED certification (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design ), awarded by the Green Building Council.
The interiors of the museum pay due homage to the great Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, designer of the country’s capital, Brasilia, and the UN HQ in New York City. Rio’s city administration funded the museum with public money to the tune of $59 million, but already it would appear the money was well spent and that the inexhaustible energy of Brazil has produced yet again a startlingly exciting modern building to house a seemingly contradictory concept – a museum about the future – the ultimate paradox.
Given this outlook, the final exhibit is unsurprisingly not about travel to a galaxy far, far away, but instead a back-to-the-pre-modern-basics appeal for sustainable values. It is a wooden structure based on an indigenous house of knowledge where communities share stories. In the centre is the only physical object in the main hall – an ancient Australian aboriginal tjurunga, which is a symbol of learning, fertility, ritual power and the ability to cope with change. Sensors embedded in the structure around it adjust the lights and sounds in the hall according to the movement of visitors – another reminder of how individuals affect the world around them.
From there, visitors exit via the rear of the building, where the glass walls look out over a “reflecting pool” on to one of the world’s most stunning and complex views – distant mountains, the polluted waters of Guanabara Bay, oil tankers, a warship, a plane flying into Santos Dumont airport, the vast span of Niterói bridge and the higgle-piggle of a city of 6 million people.
In this all-too-real today, the museum’s vision of a better tomorrow feels both anomalous and important.
As with the sustainability agenda as a whole, detractors will argue that the museum is filled with contradictions. It is reliant on sponsorship from conglomerates, such as British Gas, Santander Bank and the Roberto Marinho Foundation (which is part of the huge Globo media group) and it is at the forefront of a development that has forced many poor people from their homes.
But for anyone who believes the biggest challenges facing our species are environmental rather than economic and that the most likely solutions are behavioural rather than technological, Rio’s Museu do Amanhã may come to stand out as one of the most engaged museums in the world.
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