Go back to article: Curating the collider: using place to engage museum visitors with particle physics

Introduction

Collider: step inside the world’s greatest experiment ran at the Science Museum from November 2013–May 2014 and is touring internationally until 2017. The exhibition covers the work of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, the world’s largest particle physics facility. Strategically, the subject matter had obvious appeal for the Science Museum, with its long term ambitions to tackle complex scientific topics, attract more adult visitors, and raise its international profile (Science Museum, 2012). Practically, creating an appealing exhibition around often abstract subject matter and unfamiliar objects was a curatorial challenge, and required an unusual approach.

Audience research on previous LHC-themed exhibitions at the Science Museum and CERN's visitor centre gave some pointers (Hobson, 2012). To attract visitors in the first place, the Museum had to overcome intimidation around the subject matter: most visitors had heard of the LHC via media coverage, and were interested in finding out more about it, but many feared they would not be able to understand an exhibition.[1] Alongside the non-specialists who make up the majority of Science Museum visitors, the exhibition was likely to attract people with a deeper interest in particle physics, so the Museum needed to create something novel for them. Visitors were interested in real objects from CERN, but these were unfamiliar and needed to be set in context; also, for obvious reasons, it was impossible to display the LHC’s operational technology so the exhibition would have to rely on a relatively small number of prototype or spare components which could fit into a museum gallery. The main challenges were somehow to convey the extremes of the LHC’s scale – large-scale engineering and the invisible microworld – and to answer a key visitor question: ‘What’s the point of doing all this?’

From an early stage in the development process, we decided that the exhibition would take the form of a ‘visit to CERN’. This was motivated by a number of research trips to the laboratory, and the experience of having the workings of the LHC explained repeatedly by a variety of physicists and engineers. It became clear that the combination of on-site visits and personal storytelling was an effective way of communicating complex material. In particular, the specialised objects around which the exhibition is built acquired new meaning and significance when set in their working environments and explained by the individuals who designed, built and operate them.

Figure 1

Several visitors in hard hats stand in a large underground dimly lit room at the entrance to a large circular tunnel

The Science Museum visit group underground at the LHCb experiment. 

Figure 2

Several visitors listen to a CERN staff member talk in front of a large circular metal girder construction

The Science Museum visit group in the warehouse above ground at the CMS experiment.

Figure 3

A CERN magnet engineer talks as points out features on a cross section of a circular super-conducting magnet

A CERN magnet engineer explains how the LHC superconducting magnets work by talking the Science Museum visit group through a cross-section of a magnet.

In creating our ‘visit to CERN’ we drew on insights from the three disciplines core to the Science Museum: historians’ insights into the spaces of science; the first-hand experience of scientists; and museological techniques in recreating spaces to provide a three-dimensional visitor experience.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/140207/002