How do you design a museum exhibit about the future? The team behind New York at Its Core, the first permanent exhibit to be mounted at newly renovated Museum of the City of New York, offer an intriguing answer: Creative uses of technology are at the heart of their ongoing exhibit. In the historical section, touchscreens allow visitors to explore the lives of influential New Yorkers from Peter Stuyvesant to Jay Z, but, appropriately, the innovation really takes off in the salon dedicated to what's to come.
Future City Lab includes an animated demographic map table and a video installation, but the eye is immediately drawn to a floor-to-ceiling digital display. The giant screen is part of an interactive urban planning simulation game that allows users to devise their own cityscapes at touchscreen consoles and see their utopias immediately projected on the big screen. 3D cameras scan visitors, projecting them into worlds of their own making.
In approaching an exhibit on New York's future, it was important to curator Hilary Ballon, Professor of Urban Studies and Architecture at New York University, to put visitors at the center. “We decided early on that we wanted it to be a very interactive gallery with meaningful interaction, not just tapping a screen. That stemmed from my desire not to predict the future or have experts say what they thought the future would bring, but really to create a space for creative thinking by our visitors,” she explains. She hopes fun and visual interest will hook patrons into absorbing a lot of data in a short amount of time.
Indeed, Future City Lab is fun. The simulation is rendered in bright greens and blues, and some of possibilities are whimsical—one proposed form of future transportation involves a built-in aquarium. The game is simple enough to engage a child, but it's also genuinely challenging. In building a waterfront park, users must consider issues such as biodiversity, flood mitigation, and budget impact. The housing design simulation demands that the player take into account trade offs between density, affordability, and sustainability. Once a new design goes live, the citizenry (real New Yorkers filmed in black-and-white against a green screen) will either praise or complain about their environs (just like real New Yorkers do).
The goal is to encourage patrons to think about solutions to the problems the city faces and to empower them with the sense that they have a role to play. Jake Barton, head of Local Projects, the design firm behind the experience at the exhibit, says, “We wanted to build a platform where we put the visitor in the position of really analyzing what the challenges are in the present and what we imagine the challenges and opportunities to be in the future.” It provides a way of addressing complex subjects like gentrification and climate change without claiming to have all of the answers.
Through rooted in the present, the exhibit is literally built with the future in mind. The technology is designed so that it can be updated with new information to reflect changing realities.