The Future Starts Here at the Victoria and Albert Museum
Ideas can come from anywhere, so we’re always pleased to hear from our network about exhibitions they’ve found inspiring. Guest writer Cecilia Thirlway spent some time at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s ‘The Future Starts Here’ exhibition recently, and wrote up her thoughts for us.
Right from the beginning, this exhibition seeks to engage more than just visitors’ visual sense: a customised jukebox by the entrance presents curated playlists of political songs, organised by topic (anti-capitalism, satire, etc). Once inside, the darkened exhibition space combines with a continuous ethereal soundtrack to create a feeling of floating between the various brightly coloured spaces, each with their own specific focus.
The exhibits themselves are also designed to appeal to the senses – for touch and particularly hearing – many of them feature soundtracks or audio commentary, but one of our favourites was the Machine Learning Sand Table. Heaping or digging into the sand to change its height activates a sensor which uses artificial intelligence to then project a suitable landscape onto it. As you dig, rivers and lakes appear, while piling sand up creates hills and mountains, bare or covered in trees depending on their height. This interaction was really powerful in boosting our interest and engagement with the message of the exhibit.
The exhibition space is used to the full with an approach that plays with height as well as pops of crystalline colour. The first stand, focusing on what it is to be human, uses a two-storey design which means that even when an exhibit is crowded with visitors it is still visually striking. In the centre of the space, visitors are encouraged to recline on an angled foam block in order to view film projected onto an inverted dome while listening to an audio commentary – a much more immersive experience than a standard flat screen.
The exhibits themselves are a mixed bag – some startling, such as the two faces of Chelsea Manning extrapolated entirely from DNA samples during her incarceration, and some more prosaic, including the literature distributed by the UK Brexit Leave campaign making use of the NHS logo, in total contravention of election rules and the NHS’s own brand guidelines. The section on cities of the future was oddly uninspiring, apart from the inclusion of a paper model of Aleppo created by a 13-year-old Syrian boy who dreams of rebuilding his home city.
The most powerful exhibits were those that featured humans and technology interacting, sometimes in unexpected ways. We loved the Melbourne tree database where every tree in the city was given an email address, for citizens to report problems or requests to the council. A completely unexpected consequence of the scheme was that citizens also sent messages and poems to the trees, demonstrating our overwhelming drive to connect and form relationships, as well as the fundamental role that nature plays in our lives. From that point of view, while we admired the artificial silk leaf that could photosynthesise as an impressive feat of technology, it raised the question of why such an innovation would be wanted when trees do the job so well continually, and for a fraction of the cost. But this was the overall power of this exhibition, to provoke questions rather than provide answers.
One of the final sections examines our desire to extend the human lifespan – a very practical display of the kit required to prepare a body for cryogenic freezing straight after death prompted huge numbers of questions about whether we have the right to exceed our allotted time on the planet – and to ask our loved ones to take on these tasks. A simple but lovely library shelf showed the books selected as required to rebuild civilisation after an apocalyptic event, which you could pick up and leaf through at will. The books included practical guides, history and geography textbooks, classic fiction, and some more whimsical selections, including a cocktail recipe book, the Oxford Dictionary of Wine, and the complete Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series.
Overall, this exhibition is thought-provoking but also provides some key learnings that can be applied to any events and exhibitions practice: engaging visitors with touch and hearing as well as vision; thinking creatively about the space to create unexpected experiences; and finally reinforcing the human element to make the all-important emotional connection with the audience.
The Future Starts Here is at the V&A until the 4 November. If you’d like to discuss how to apply some of these ideas to your own event or exhibition, then do get in touch.