Barely a few months old, Rio’s new Museu do Amanhã (“Museum of Tomorrow”) has already become an architectural icon and must-see destination. But it is more than just an aesthetic marvel: It wants to spur us into building a better tomorrow, right now.

It’s unique and spectacular, both in form and content. With the Museu do Amanhã, the neo-futuristic architect Santiago Calatrava has created a building every bit as dazzling as his Turning Torso in Malmö.

Jutting out over Guanabara Bay in the city’s port district – once a murderous slum that is now being redeveloped on a grand scale – the structure is more than worthy of a country that has produced Oscar Niemeyer, the architectural all-time great.

“The idea is for the building to be as ethereal as possible, almost floating above the sea like a boat, bird, or plant,” says Calatrava. And while his work is slender and graceful, it is also striking and impressive in size.

 Museu do Amanhã panorama
Architect Santiago Calatrava designed an almost floating, extraordinary building, a must-see in Rio de Janeiro.
Photo: Byron Prujansky

Starship Enterprise or ocean liner?

Its photovoltaic fins on the roof bristle as they come to life and align with the sun over the course of the day; their diamond shape evoking the spiky, tough skin of a pineapple in homage to its tropical setting.

A giant, turbine-like wheel resembles a detail from a fictional star ship Enterprise, while the gleaming white hull of the museum, when seen from the ground, towers over the spectator like an enormous ocean liner.

But it’s what’s inside that really matters: a display dedicated to sustainability. This is not so much a traditional museum, looking back on what has been: Instead, says curator Luiz Alberto Oliveira, the exhibits “raise questions without giving answers.” The museum’s motto is “Tomorrow is today, and today is the time for action.”

 Museu do Amanhã outside reflection
A look over the reflection pool reveals an amazing view over Guanabara Bay and the city of Rio de Janeiro.
Photo: Bernard Lessa

Unanswered questions

“The museum offers a narrative based on some of the questions humanity has always asked itself,” expands director general Hugo Barreto. “Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we? Where are we going? And how will we get there? Hopefully, by building a better world.”

The museum’s central theme is that, for the first time in Earth’s existence, the future of the planet is built – by us. We live in the Anthropocene, a new geological age where changes to our planet are not the result of natural events, but of human activity.

These transformations unfold at unprecedented speed: The amount of change expected over the next 50 years will compare to that of the past 10 million. The Museu do Amanhã aims to raise awareness that our actions have consequences – and that it is critical to consider these.

But first, on entering the egg-shaped “cosmic portal,” visitors recline to watch a 360-degree projection by Fernando Mereilles, director of the movie “City of God,” which manages to pack 13 billion years of solar system history into a pocket-sized eight minutes. Thus primed, they wander off into the remaining areas: the Earth, the Anthropocene, Tomorrows, and Us.

 Museu do Amanhã display
The Museu do Amanhã wants people to rethink sustainability as the possibility to influence the future of the planet as humans.
Photo: Byron Prujansky

Four areas from “Earth” to “Us”

The Earth section contains three cubes that explore the three dimensions of existence: Matter, Life, and Thought. While matter is represented by an art installation by Daniel Wurtzel (“dancing fabric mirrors the slow movement of tectonic plates…”), the Life cube showcases the ecosystems of our planet as well as the interconnectedness of all living things.

Thought focuses on the human mind and all the diversity it has brought forth – both good and bad, in art, culture, science, and behavior.

The Anthropocene area, which is at the heart of the museum, both physically and conceptually, subjects visitors to an alarming onslaught of continually updated real-time data chronicling how humans impact the Earth, this very second: from the acidification of the oceans to global births and deaths and the latest figures on the consumption of water, energy, and beef.

On top of that, clips of environmental disasters bring to mind that which is far away and thus unseen. The intention is to jolt visitors into thinking about sustainability, into asking what we must do to shape a positive future.

 Museu do Amanhã screens
The museum is divided into sections reflecting human influence on the planet from macro to micro.
Photo: Bernard Lessa

Up to date with the latest data

After receiving the latest information – the museum’s stream of data is constantly refreshed by leading scientific institutions like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology MIT– visitors enter an interactive zone called Tomorrows.

This area looks at six mega trends: climate change, biodiversity, population growth, cultural integration, technological advances, and expanding knowledge, exploring how these are interrelated.

Then, it’s over to the public: Visitors are invited to determine their own environmental footprint and see if, extrapolated to the entire human population, it is sustainable. Another thought-provoking exhibit, the Civilizations game, involves a group of players working together to ensure the survival of the planet.

 Museu do Amanhã visitors
Visitors explore the world of tomorrow facing climate change, biodiversity, population growth, cultural integration, technological advances, and expanding knowledge.
Photo: Byron Prujansky

1,000 light bulbs in the “house of knowledge”

After exercising the heavy responsibility of saving the planet, visitors enter the Us section for a well-deserved chill-out. Here, in an indigenous wooden “house of knowledge,” a soothing display of more than 1,000 light bulbs turns on and off, changing colors to soft music.

The space also houses the museum’s only physical object, an Aboriginal tjurunga. This sacred relic symbolizes the passing of knowledge to others and is one of the oldest human artifacts ever made.

After meditating on tomorrow’s challenges, and today’s solutions, visitors enter the open air. Past the reflecting pool, the bay opens up – revealing this amazing, exuberant, and troubled city as a microcosm of the world.

Yes, the water in the bay is still polluted, much to the displeasure of the Olympic Committee. But next to the museum, an old elevated expressway has been knocked down and replaced with a tunnel – the polluting old making way for the sustainable new. To regenerate a semi-abandoned no-go zone on top of the tunnel, the municipality is creating a neighborhood that preserves historic buildings and links them to the rest of town via tram, as well as a network of pedestrian walkways and cycle paths.

It is a hopeful vision of sustainable planning. If tomorrow is built by us, then maybe the revival of Rio’s port, right here, right now, shows the way.

 Museu do Amanhã looking at the earth
See the world as a creation of humanity. Challenge accepted?
Photo: Byron Prujansky

Museu do Amanhã, Praça Mauá, 1 – Centro, Rio de Janeiro.
Open from Tuesdays to Sundays, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m
For more information, check out the website, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube or Twitter.