An outdated future sweeps rural Kansas museums.

Futurama 

An outdated future sweeps rural Kansas museums.

A traveling exhibit spotlighting retro visions of the future seems like a natural match for a big city. In Kansas City, pockets of ironic hipsters would appreciate the kitsch value of such a spectacle.

That's why it's a bit of a surprise that Yesterday's Tomorrows is on display in Atchison, Kansas. But Yesterday's Tomorrows is part of the Smithsonian's Museum on Main Street program, which brings exhibits that fit in small, low-budget museums to rural towns that usually lose out in favor of bigger cities with healthier bankrolls. Since last March, the show has made stops in Newton, Liberal, Burlington, Lucas and Coffeyville.

Hitting the major touchstones of American life -- cars, homes, communities and pop culture -- the exhibit spans two centuries of prognostication. It explores our urge to make predictions in magazines, books, radio and television. The presentation is decidedly lo-fi, with kiosks reminiscent of high-school science fairs offering panels covered in photos. One, taken at the 1939 World Fair, depicts a clumsy-looking Elektro the Westinghouse Robot and his robotic dog, Sparko, suggesting that these would be widespread household appliances in the future. Although such dinner-serving, dog-owning robots seemed possible, few actually materialized (outside The Jetsons). In addition to the ordinary flying cars designed by major motor companies (the Airphibian, the Lavacar and the Skycar), the Transportation of Tomorrow display offers a 1959 design for a Moonport. People would soon be driving it to the moon as though they were making a trip to the grocery store. For his part, safety-razor baron King Gillette envisioned everyone in North America living in skyscrapers powered by Niagara Falls.

Who hasn't wished for flying cars or robot servants? And who's to say we won't eventually clean our waterproof couches with garden hoses? Yesterday's Tomorrows attests either to America's optimism or its utter naivete.

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