Hello from the Future – Will people drink Urameshi Soda?

Mutablematter is back and blogging. And has just returned from the Future, as my band-mates call Japan. So it was only fitting that we went to see the somewhat oxymoronic ‘Museum of the Future’ – the Miraikan. Basically, the Miraikan is a science museum, but rather than explaining the history of science and technology, it presents what is happening or being developed right now. The only chance we had to go was on a busy Sunday between soundcheck and gig. The train that took us to the museum very much resembled the London Docklands Light Railways – and even went through a Docklands-like landscape. Only a little more extreme, of course. Here is an example building close to the museum…

We wondered whether it has sliding doors and lifts you have to speak to. The museum itself was surprisingly tame. We expected it to be fully robot operated and more like an ethereal white gallery-like shrine to convergence. Instead we found ourselves in a very hands-on, very human-run space. In the permanent exhibition (‘Innovation and the Future’) we visited, you could touch robots, operate an atomic force microscope and flip the switches inside a deep sea diving bell.

The hall was also patrolled by a large team of enthusiastic staff who kept approaching visitors in order to help them shake off the initial bedazzlement by technology. I actually spent far too long chatting to one of the English-speaking staff that I ended up with very little time for the exhibits. So, please excuse my somewhat limited descriptions. We also missed the hands-on lab and robot demos – mostly, because they were booked out well in advance. Luckily, all exhibits displayed English translations, so browsing the exhibits was comparatively easy – I didn’t have to struggle for hours (days? years?) with my Japanese dictionary.

The most prominent features of the museum are the numerous ‘opinion areas’. The first one I came across bore the curious title ‘Sea of Fertility’. On closer inspection, it was not about artificial insemination, but about giving voice to your wishes about future technologies.

The next discussion area focused on future medicine. According to the website, ‘you can… become a part of “Promoting Medicine Together” by exchanging opinions at this area’.

The last area I visited was themed ‘The environment and me’ . I thought it was interesting that the explanation speaks, again, of togetherness – a desired unification of views. This particular space reminded of what, a decade ago, tended to be described as ‘technological sustainability’.

While one could argue that the Miraikan portrays new technologies in an overly positive manner – there is a strong sense that new technologies ARE the future and that people should work together to make them work for them (and the planet) – I felt that the exhibition was enriched by the discussion spaces. The fact that opinions could be written freely and without pre-formulated sentences to tick gave visitors an opportunity to see quite a breadth of other visitors’ opinions. I could not find out whether all comments make it into the display and how the displays were edited. What I did find was that the museum staff seemed very keen on asking everybody for their opinion or whether anybody had any further questions. Many of the staff seemed to be science students – I spoke to a biology PhD student. Visitors were also encouraged to make suggestions about the museum. When I asked about the discussion exhibits (who reads the opinions – do policy makers and scientists also take a look at them? or is it just for other museum visitors?), I was given some paper in a folder to write to the museum. I also left my e-mail, so I’m hoping I hear back from them. Some readers may have alarm bells ringing about the friendly buzz of ‘we care about your opinion’ . I can empathise with this opinion, but when I was in the space of the Miraikan, I felt the value of exchanging thoughts with fellow visitors, even if it is just on anonymous note cards. What I also found interesting was that the museum worker I spoke to emphasised that they felt the questions on display are very limited – so they are collecting what people would like to ask or see in the displays (the exhibitions seem to undergo periodic re-design).

Before we had to head back to manic Shibuya, we had a quick snack at the cafe. I braved the Miraikan’s theme concoction, ‘Urameshi Soda’ (is it named after the manga character or does it have to do something with the Japanese word for ‘envious’?). As far as I could make out is was melon flavoured soda with strawberry sauce and some kind of jelly. Obviously the popular choice of the future… because we will have self-repairing teeth and bodies!

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