Even before it opened its doors to visitors, the Museum of the Future, Dubai’s latest attraction, had made news. The calligraphy-clad, torus-shaped building had secured a spot in National Geographic’s list of the 14 most beautiful museums in the world.
Located on the arterial Sheikh Zayed Road and in close proximity to the Burj Khalifa, the museum, with its unusual shape, cutting-edge architectural design elements and mind-bending exhibits, is unlike anything out there. For a city that always pushes boundaries and takes pride in thinking out of the box, the Museum of the Future seems like a perfect addition.
Shaun Killa, Design Partner at Killa Design, the firm behind the building says, “This building symbolises a sense of innovation. It represents where Dubai is moving, and the UAE with it.”
“I wanted to contextualise the building to make it feel that it belongs in this region and so I chose to use the ancient art of calligraphy. Further, I wanted to contextualise that this is in Dubai and so I decided to use quotes from His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum,” adds Killa. The panels of calligraphy by Mattar bin Lahej act as windows bathing the interiors in sunlight during the day and also, offer sweeping views of Dubai’s ever-changing skyline.
“It’s an incredibly unusual structure. It’s iconic because you can draw the entire building in three lines,” says the architect, whose firm was picked to design the structure through a competition. There are three parts to the building and together they symbolise the present and future. The 77-metre-high elliptical building sits atop a mound called the earth that’s covered with 80 species of plants from around the world. Besides helping with the elevation, the park is a welcome addition to Dubai’s concrete cityscape and acts as a heat island, absorbing the high levels of heat through the day. The futuristic structure represents humankind and the void—the unknown.
“The void in the middle of the building represents what we don’t know about the future. People who seek the unknown are those who invent and discover new things. The bright ideas coming out of the void will replenish the museum through the ages,” he says.
Stepping inside the stark white interiors, my eyes are drawn towards a jellyfish-shaped drone, complete with its trailing tentacles hypnotically opening and closing. There’s a palpable sense of excitement and wonder as visitors wait to begin their exploration. While traditional museums are portals into the past, this one, like the name suggests, propels you into the future. Standing in front of a projection of what Dubai might look like 50 years from now, watching flying taxis zoom through the sky, zigzagging between buildings taller and larger than the Burj Khalifa is both thrilling and humbling. It almost seems impossible, but that’s the whole point. The museum and its exhibits are all about possibilities, some already imagined and others yet to be.
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Designers, artists and filmmakers from around the world have collaborated to create these interactive exhibits powered by artificial intelligence and augmented reality. The museum is split over five storeys, and Aya, the museum’s digital avatar guide, takes visitors on a journey to outer space, into the depths of the Amazon, brings them face-to-face with species on the brink of extinction and ultimately ushers them back to a space that offers ample opportunity to pause and feel grounded in the present.
As I follow a small group into an elevator that simulates what it feels like blasting off to the OSS Hope space station 600 kilometres above Earth, Fatma Almheiri, the Communications Manager at the museum, says she’s seen people cry as they get to visually experience a journey into the unknown. Watching the city fade away and the skies open up through enormous screens all around is a special feeling. At the space station, visitors can scan their smart wristbands and explore what it’s like being in space—from joining missions and trying on virtual spacesuits to finding out more about the SOL project that’s focussed on developing a renewable energy source for the future by tapping energy from the moon through lunar photovoltaic energy cells.
Back on Earth, a number of exhibits turn the spotlight on the multitude of issues facing the planet. From climate change to destruction of habitats and species, visitors are encouraged to come up with possible ideas and solutions to combat these pressing challenges. A wall-to-wall projection shows the complicated and interconnected network of life in the Amazon as recorded by scientists on the ground. The most eye-catching space in the museum is the Library, a vault that showcases 2,400 species—some thriving, some extinct and others on the verge of extinction. Through handheld scanners, visitors can learn more about each species and their habitats. Using the information out there, they can combine DNAs and “create species” that will survive in an ever-changing environment.
Sufficiently wired up both with challenges and ideas, the journey moves to the calm and soothing interiors of the Al Waha, or the oasis. Mental health is and always will be critical to the well-being of humanity. With soothing dusty pink interiors, ambient lighting, a gong vibration experience and a meditation centre, here visitors are encouraged to disconnect from gadgets and reconnect with themselves.
The finale is a space called the Today Tomorrow that showcases gadgets and technology at the forefront of innovation. From a self-driving car, a remote-controlled falcon that can be used to monitor and control bird populations, to a material that can be used to replace plastic, these are innovations that showcase how technology can be channelised to tackle a variety of challenges.
Children are the future and the museum has a specially designated section ,, called Future Heroes that’s dedicated to children below the age of 10. Here, through play and hands-on activities, children are encouraged to let their imaginations run wild while developing skills that will help them in the future.
If the museum shines during the day, it sparkles after nightfall, lit up by 14 kilometres of LED lights that run along the quotes of His Highness. Of the three quotes used for the calligraphy, Killa says his favourite is the one that perfectly encapsulates what the museum stands for: “The future belongs to those who imagine it, design it and execute it.”
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Chaitali Patel is the former Associate Editor, Special Projects at National Geographic Traveller India. She's partial to nature, history and the arts. She believes that every trip is as much a journey within as it is one outside.