Sited on a headland in the port district of Rio de Janeiro, on approach the Museum of Tomorrow looks like some kind of spaceship, perhaps an inter-galactic freighter. Once inside and looking out, however, the feeling is of being in the belly of a whale, its huge skeletal frame exposed to the burning sun. It is an extraordinary structure housing a truly unique museum, that invites the visitor to ponder human existence in way that is progressively profound, disturbing, and uplifting.
Opened up couple of months ago in advance of the 2016 Olympics, the Museum of Tomorrow’s content is almost entirely digital, enabling exhibits to be constantly updated. A feature on gravitional waves is already being readied to go live, for example, despite their discovery only taking place in the last few weeks. Factoids on population and pollution are constantly ticking over as you wander round and, indeed, each visitor themselves contributes to the musuem’s data bank via a personalised smart card, which is used to interact with each exhibit.
That said, two of the most stunning sections of the museum involve physical rather than virtual reality. First, the most beautiful piece of visual art markontour has ever had the pleasure to experience. It is impossible to do it justice with mere words, but imagine two lengths of silk, one white, one sea-shimmering blue, animated by airwaves and engaged in an intimate dance with each other, twisting, flowing, inter-twining and then separating. It was utterly mesmerising and somehow helped express the dynamism of our living, inter-connected Earth better than images of the real thing.
The second is a churinga, an Australian aboriginal scultpure that looks like an ancient sword, but is in fact a totem symbolising the unity between past and present. Housed inside a giant wooden honeycomb, the lighting of which changes as visitors move and interact, the churinga marks the end of a gallery tour that takes you from the birth of planet Earth, through an exploration of our home as a mutually dependent family of life, to a visceral understanding of the dangers of the anthropocene, and a chance to muse on the kind of future we want and could create.
The museum is intensely thought provoking throughout. An extinction room gives visitors the chance to play god/humanity and choose not only which species die or survive, but then to see the impact on the rest of the living world. It’s a pretty stark way of showing that we are but one part of a complex and inter-dependent eco-system.
In another amazing space, giant digital obelisks that are a kind of cross between Stonehenge and the extra-terrestial monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, take us on a whizz round the world in a tumble of startling, constantly updating data.
Markontour was privileged to be shown round by the museum’s curator, but even with such a guide it would require days to take everything in, rather than the hour I enjoyed.
The Museum of Tomorrow is a centrepiece of the regeneration of Rio made possible by Olympic investment (for every dollar the city is spending on the Games themselves, it is spending five more on a legacy of new bus rapid transit lanes, housing and public spaces). Reclaiming land from the navy, the museum sits atop what was once the world’s largest slave port (a fact that is strangely absent from what I saw of the exhibits). All around is public space, made available by the demolition of a six lane elevated highway. Cycle-ways allow zero-carbon travel to the musuem along one of the most beautiful stretches of coast in the world, all the way from the beaches of Ipenema and Copacabana around the bay. The museum itself is partly powered by an array of solar panels that follow the sun and is cooled by sea water.
In short, this place is destined to become one of the world’s greatest cultural experiences. And while it might be possible for other museums to match the content, only at the Museum of Tomorrow can you finish a tour with a vista of the glorious Atlantic Ocean, framed by the stunning Rio-Niteroi bridge in the distance and a glistening star-like, glinting silver sculpture in the foreground. Magical.