Exhibitions on Both Sides of the Atlantic Ponder Future Life—on Earth, and Beyond

In London and Philadelphia, curators prod at the ethics, anxieties, and material culture of humanity as we gear towards a future interplanetary society.

Moving to Mars exhibition Courtesy Ed Reeve

“Should I stay or should I go?” pondered English punk rock band The Clash in their 1982 hit single. Fast forward three decades and that question is at the heart of a budding movement for an interplanetary human society. Helmed by neoliberal business moguls like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson, the protagonists of the so-called billionaire space race, the push to settle on Mars—and beyond—is riddled with tricky ethical questions. Does humanity have the right to colonize another planet? Who, exactly, does this sky-high ambition serve, and can we possibly justify interplanetary expansion when our home base is on the brink of climate crisis? Shouldn’t we devote these resources to recuperating the Earth?

“As the dream of landing a human on Mars becomes increasingly likely, it becomes a design project,” reasons Justin McGuirk, the chief curator of London’s Design Museum, where a new exhibition, Moving to Mars (October 18, 2019–February 23, 2020) tackles these very ideas. “How do we form a safe and healthy base on an inhospitable planet, and what might Mars teach us about saving the Earth from the Anthropocene?”

Meanwhile, some 3,700 miles west, another exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Designs for Different Futures (October 22, 2019–March 8, 2020) examines these issues with its feet firmly planted on home soil.

As a millennia-old symbol of war, king of conflict, and harbinger of retrograde chaos, Mars has had an infamous reputation for rabble-rousing and transfixing humanity. Moving to Mars introduces its muse in a quick blast through the past, outlining Mars’s morphing popular image over the centuries in the first of seven rooms dedicated to our future arrival and survival on the Red Planet. In a cuneiform tablet dating from 1,000 B.C.E., Babylonians ponder Mars’s backwards movement across the night sky. Scientific Revolution–era drawings of ice caps, bodies of water, and even a fantastical “discovery” of so-called Martian canals by the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli in 1877 spawned a Mars fever in the West that only intensified with the release of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds in 1897. Hollywood brought the mystique of the Martian to cult fame in the 20th century. A cluster of psychedelic film posters at the back of the room affirm the curator’s claim that the cultural representation of Mars has always been part science, part magic.

Svalbard Global Seed Vault, designed 2008 by Peter W. Søderman, Barlindhaug Consulting (Exhibition display courtesy of USDA Agricultural Research Service, National Laboratory for Genetic Resources Preservation). Photograph courtesy of Global Crop Diversity Trust. Image courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2019


In the second room, a panoramic video of imagery taken by the Mars-roving vehicle Curiosity couples with an imitation Martian landscape on the floor, giving visitors a visceral impression of life on the Red Planet. An inexplicably intoxicating scent, designed by French perfumer Nicolas Bonneville in response to NASA’s description of Mars, cascades from a diffuser suspended from the ceiling, filling the room with a volcanic, gingery musk reminiscent of a perfume by Australian skincare brand Aesop. It lingers in every gallery, adding another layer of immersive intrigue to an exhibition that, in a first for the Design Museum, has family-friendly entertainment in every room.

Designs for Different Futures takes a similar approach. The first work awaiting visitors is Another Generosity (2018), a gigantic pneumatic chamber filled with water and air that changes its shape, color, and size with the fluctuating carbon dioxide levels of visitors, created by Eero Lundén, Juulia Kauste, engineers BuroHappold, and Aalto University. The exhibition presents an epic assortment of some 80 speculative design projects spread across 11 thematic sections, including the body, power, generations, intimacies, and food. Many of the multisensory, immersive experiences unpack complex and anxiety-inducing topics, like resource scarcity and even human extinction in the centuries ahead.

“Unless you put people in a life or death scenario like Mars, they will not do better on Earth.”

Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg’s Resurrecting the Sublime (2018–19), for instance, operates as an under-the-nose olfactory intervention: The artist (along with her collaborators, Sissel Tolaas and Christina Agapakis/Ginkgo Bioworks) has produced a “scented landscape” of flora that would inhabit the Earth in a world without humans. “Museumgoers expect information that’s literally framed, whether it’s a video monitor or a painting,” reasons Michelle Millar Fisher, one of five co-curators for Designs for Different Futures. “Here, two rocks and a wandering scent create a phenomenological experience that disrupts visitors’ expectations and offers new ways of understanding information.”

In a section of the exhibition focused on labor, the thorny dynamic of humans vs. machines and the impact that AI will have on jobs, productivity, and human identity is tackled head on, but it raises different questions than you might expect. Robot Baby Feeder (2016), a Kickstarter-funded robot arm designed by Stephan Bogner, Philipp Schmitt, and Jonas Voigt, claims to save parents up to 30 minutes of time per feeding. “The question I always ask visitors is: If you took away the robots, who does the work?” says Fischer. “It then becomes a question of unpaid domestic labor done by women—not a dystopian binary, but a very real problem we experience in the present, especially in the U.S. medical system.”

Raising Robotic Natives, designed 2016 by Stephen Bogner, Philipp Schmitt, and Jonas Voigt (Courtesy of the designers) Photograph © Stephan Bogner, Philipp Schmitt, and Jonas Voigt. Image courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2019.


In the same way that Designs for Different Futures uses familiar sci-fi tropes of the cyborg to interrogate contemporary issues of unpaid and gendered labour, Moving to Mars adopts the seductive premise of occupying Mars to encourage a deeper consideration of what makes us human, and speculates on what it might take to save our own dying planet.

Even in the most nitty-gritty sections of Moving to Mars, which deal with technicalities of getting to the Red Planet and staying there, the exhibition retains a psychological focus. In the “voyage” room, a short video featuring space architect Xavier De Kestelier reminds visitors that the moon mission was a three-day trip—a short vacation—while the journey to Mars takes upwards of seven months. Exquisitely detailed vintage A7L spacesuits from the 1960s are displayed alongside speculative space gear by Anna Talvi, including “memory smellscape” gloves infused with scents of fresh-cut grass and horse manure to remind astronauts of home, as well as a mourning kit for future space travelers by Franzisken Steingen.

The drawings of unsung Soviet space architect Galina Balashova are a true gem of the Mars show that essentialize what humans need most to survive. Her interior designs for the LOK orbital module from 1964 show an atypically colorful shuttle with decorative details that make the place feel like home. “Bulashova was thinking about the psychological necessity of colour, the solace of a room with a view, at a moment where nobody else was,” suggests McGuirk.

In the survival section, the Mars exhibition presents a series of prototypes for settlements on Mars devised by Foster + Partners, HASSELL, and SEArch+, all stemming from NASA’s 3D Habitat Challenge. Martian topsoil, otherwise known as regolith, features in most of the models on show, but the winning entry from the competition from 2015, designed by female-led practice SEArch+, takes the form of a transparent tornado slide made from ice, which makes light and space a design necessity through panoramic views out across the red desert.

Mars Habitat by HASSELL with 3D-printed furniture by Nagami from the Moving to Mars Exhibition, with special thanks to Oxygen Model Management. Felix Speller for the Design Museum


An eye-wateringly complex illustration by Lydia Kallipoliti demonstrates the bleak intensity of the zero-waste lifestyle needed to make human habitation of the Red Planet possible. (Sweat, excrement, and tears are among the bodily resources that will need to be recycled in the Martian circular economy, and you can anticipate many lumpy spirulina protein shakes being on the menu.) “Unless you put people in a life or death scenario like Mars,” reasons McGuirk, “They will not do better on Earth.”

Only towards the end of Moving to Mars does the exhibition drop its human-centric agenda to ask the inevitable question of whether we should even be trying to reach Mars at all. Here, far-out neoliberal fantasies of terraforming the planet to look like our own and visions of extreme capitalist colonization of the solar system face off against Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg’s poetic video simulation The Wilding of Mars (2019), which presents a different take on Mars as a refuge for flora. Millions of years flash by in seconds as the planet’s deserts come alive with a wild, heterogenous beauty, as Ginsberg ponders, “Might giving the planet to other life forms be the ultimate unnatural act for humans?”

Just as our planet is perched on the edge of ecological collapse, Mars becomes an increasingly tantalizing symbol of a possible post-Earth livelihood. But the hauntingly barren image of Mars today should also stand as a warning sign of what our planet could end up looking like if we don’t change our ways. As the dream of an interplanetary human society becomes an increasingly privatized endeavor rooted in principles of neo-colonial injustice and exclusion, these exhibitions serve as a timely reminder that the fate of planet Earth—and the rest of the solar system—is not written in the stars, but an urgent question that we all must answer.

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Categories: Arts + Culture