In one of the galleries in Dubai’s recently opened Museum of Future, near the beginning of its futuristic displays, flickers in lavender-green neon the ancient Chinese proverb, written in three languages, Arabic, English, and Mandarin: “The ancestors plant the trees / the descendants enjoy the shade.”
The writing on the wall is literally and figuratively clear. Given the multiple pressing challenges our planet faces today, it becomes all the more paramount for the present generation to acknowledge and address these mounting crises to safeguard the planet for future ones. It’s a task that no doubt must be a collective, concerted undertaking.
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The Museum of the Future, whose soaring, arching Arabic calligraphy-engraved stainless steel presence sits in the heart of Dubai’s business district, focuses on harnessing the lessons from our present day to construct the future, inviting the viewers to participate in doing so through a highly inclusive approach.
Utilizing a variety of virtual and augmented reality, big data analysis, artificial intelligence, and human machine interaction installations and displays, the museum takes the visitors on a voyage into the future through the framework of five chapters, suggesting the idea of an unfurling global narrative.
One minute, you are in Dubai 2022; the next, you’re in the first chapter: a space-station in the outer reaches of the galaxy, OSS Hope, in 2071, exploring how human beings are at the forefront of space technology. (That chosen date, nearly 50 years into the future, incidentally, also marks the 100th anniversary of the formation of the United Arab Emirates.)
Chapter 2 takes visitors to the Heal Institute, the first section set in a dazzling digital re-creation of the Amazon in Leticia, Colombia. They subsequently encounter the “Vault of Life,” an illuminated immersive installation consisting of a DNA library of 2,400 species, carefully selected from millions of species to catalogue the world’s incredible biodiversity, as well as a laboratory of experimental species, all designed to compel the viewers to consider the impact of climate change. The subsequent chapters explore other iterations of future, such as a mind-body calibration in the “Al Waha” chapter; how we might access today’s emerging technologies for tomorrow’s gain in “Tomorrow Today”; and, finally, “Superheroes,” which focuses on young people already thinking through solutions to the climate crisis.
“The Museum of the Future is different to any other conventional museum,” said Khalfan Belhoul, the CEO of the Dubai Future Foundation, which manages the government-funded museum, in an email interview. He described the space as a “living museum” which “will constantly be renewed, enhanced and enriched over time,” an aspect deliberately reflected in the flexible nature of the museum’s interior architecture, a fluid, multi-storied, and pillarless space that is highly adaptable and open for interpretation for future programming.
Given the appearance of landmark museums in neighboring Abu Dhabi (the Louvre and the upcoming Guggenheim) as a way to signal the country’s renewed desire for knowledge and exploration of culture, science, and art, the arrival of Museum of the Future “constitutes an unparalleled opportunity for a new generation to become part of the future and all its aspects,” according to Belhoul. Part of this involved the curatorial team’s engaging of local and international artists, designers, scientists, and futurists from around the world to provide a platform for devising solutions to global challenges.
The “Today Tomorrow” section, for example, takes as a reference point the question posed by influential architect Cedric Price in 1966, “Technology is the answer but, what was the question?” On view are more than 50 exhibits to how exactly technology has been essential to shaping our future, including prototypes and current products focusing on areas such as waste management, environment, food security, agriculture, irrigation, and city planning.
Whether it is discovering Notpla, a biodegradable material that aims to replace single-use plastic packaging, or methods to permanently store carbon dioxide that would limit the amount of emissions entering the atmosphere, the exhibit presents the multiple, diverse kinds of research occurring in different parts of the world. While other sections focus more on engaging the viewers’ imagination and senses, “Today Tomorrow” stands out not only for effectively drawing attention to today’s most pressing environmental-related questions but also presenting how technology is bridging the transition of abstract ideas into tangible, accessible forms to create feasible solutions.
While the Museum of the Future has said it has welcomed numerous visitors since its opening at the end of February (the museum declined to provide any attendance figures to ARTnews), Behoul emphasized that it is more than “just a visitor experience. It’s a place where great minds come together to design and shape the future.”
How exactly that will take place remains to be seen, but some of the museum’s initial programming points to the fact that this isn’t just fluff. Aiming to be a place for discussion and debate, the museum has so far hosted a series of “Future Talks” with innovators, scientists, and prominent figures from leading industries on a diverse array of subjects. In the second “Future Talk,” Oussama Khatib, director of Stanford Robotic Lab at Stanford University, spoke about how our oceans hold the answers to critical existential questions and the ways in which humans and robots can collaborate together to navigate the oceans. The third Talk saw Alex Kipman, Microsoft’s vice president of artificial intelligence and mixed reality, explore the future and potential of the Metaverse.
In addition to having a research publishing arm, the Museum of the Future will also serve as headquarters for the Great Arab Minds fund, a five-year initiative, with AED 100 million ($27.2 million) in funding from the Dubai government to create “the Arab world’s largest movement designed to search for exceptional talents among Arab scientists, thinkers, and innovators across key fields, aiming to highlight leading thinkers in the region and inspire young people with their example,” according to a press release.
That all of this will be housed in one central location in Dubai further cements the kind of invest this new institution has received. Look no further than the Museum of the Future’s architecture, which is a physical embodiment of the museum’s philosophy, according to its architect, Shaun Killa, who described it as pushing the “absolute limits of design, technology, and construction technology.”
The viewer’s first visual encounter with the museum finds one’s eye drawn toward the striking elliptical void that forms a focal aspect of the museum’s exterior. The museum’s asymmetrical appearance consequently gives the sense that the building is in dynamic movement, as if it’s moving forward, a quite literal embodiment of the museum’s aim to voyage into the future. “What this void represents is what we don’t know about the future,” Killa said. “People that seek the unknown become the inventors and discoverers of the future which ultimately [will] continuously replenish the museum.”
Taking its own calls to action regarding climate change seriously, the museum is also significantly a low-carbon project, with passive solar architecture and low-energy and low-water engineering solutions with integrated renewable capabilities integrated into its design.
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And in order to ensure the maximum visibility for the museum, given that it nestles inside the dynamically undulating Dubai skyline, the 252-foot-tall museum sits upon a green plateau which in turn is enveloped with 100 plant species which are native to UAE. The presence of this greened plateau creates an additional layer of making the museum an urban park, allowing visitors to sit and walk around the museum, engaging with the structure in both a spatial and urban context.
The facade also features three quotes from the current ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed Rashid bin Maktoum in a 3-D engraving in classical Arabic calligraphy by Emirati artist Mattar bin Lahej, and large CNC computer robotic arms were employed to fix each of the facade’s 1,024 polished stainless-steel panels. At night, the 8.7 miles of programmable LED lights illuminate the calligraphy, making it a dramatic visual addition to downtown Dubai.
Killa described the calligraphy as “windows to the museum,” as a way to outwardly present the Sheikh’s vision for the future, both regionally and globally. One of the Sheikh’s quotes perhaps best embodies the museum’s mission and vision: “The future belongs to those who can imagine it, design it and execute it. It isn’t something you await, but rather create.” If the museum continues to expand upon and respond to this notion through multiple lens and approaches in its future exhibits, it certainly has the potential to contribute in creating the future we so urgently need right now.