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

Place in museums

Museums attach huge weight to offering the ‘real thing’ via the original objects on display. However, as Kevin Moore (1997) has argued, the ‘real thing’ loses part of its power when decontextualized from its ‘real place’. While historic houses and on-site museums are able to show material culture in something close to its original setting, many museums operate at a far remove from an object’s original context of use. This is particularly the case for large museums where objects are frequently of national and international, rather than local, significance. While it would be desirable to preserve and interpret artefacts in situ, this is not always feasible; even so, it is possible for museums and heritage attractions to recreate ‘a sense of real things in a real place’ by creating room sets or buildings (Moore, 1997, p 140). Museum professionals are often bemused by the popularity among visitors of inauthentic or even tacky reconstructions; yet Moore argues that high-quality versions – especially when combined with the testimony of ‘real’ people (as opposed to museum staff) – can provide genuinely powerful experiences.

Museum reconstructions tended to fall out of favour in the late twentieth century, in large part due to concerns over lack of historical accuracy. But in recent years they have undergone something of a resurgence. One justification has been that visitors are perfectly capable of identifying them as spectacle rather than reality, and enjoying them as such. However, curators must be careful to ensure that the information they are seeking to convey is not swamped by visitors’ affective responses to the setting (Bryant, 2009)

Julius Bryant identifies a range of approaches. Painstaking reconstructions of spaces with their original artefacts, fully provenanced – for example Francis Bacon’s studio at the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin or Jeanne Lanvin’s apartment at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris – are often presented as an ‘objective period room…caged in a box’ with the visitor as voyeur (Bryant, 2009, p 80). At the other extreme, the Deutsches Auswandererhaus in Bremerhaven, with its theatrical recreations of various spaces encountered by German emigrants to America in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, might be termed a ‘museological melange’, a hybrid that is more a reflection of the curator’s creativity rather than a very authentic reconstruction of a time or setting (Bryant, 2009, p 80).

This range of approaches can also be seen in reconstructed scientific laboratories and technology workshops, though these perhaps present a more challenging prospect for the visitor than the more familiar domestic settings encountered in many heritage sites or art and design museums.

As Ken Arnold notes, the main appeal of visiting the Alexander Fleming Laboratory Museum at St Mary’s Hospital in London is the feeling of ‘palpable magic’ at being in the very place of Fleming’s famous 1928 discovery of penicillin (Arnold, 1996, p 70). The laboratory itself, restored to resemble its original furnishings and displaying some objects owned by Fleming alongside typical equipment of the period, is somewhat opaque to visitors, but brought to life by the Museum’s volunteer guides.

The magic of the real is also exploited by the Science Museum’s display of James Watt’s workshop. Acquired as something of a shrine in 1924, for most of its museum life it was displayed as an objective room in a box with visitors peering through a window. For its redisplay in 2012, the exhibition team attempted to give visitors more of a sense of being inside the workshop by creating a curved glass case so that visitors could stand surrounded by the workshop contents. Surrounding exhibits explored Watt’s work within the broader context of manufacture in the late eighteenth century (Russell, 2014). The display succeeded in giving visitors a sense of atmosphere and intrigue, and a contextual background to Watt’s working methods, although in audience evaluation visitors indicated that they wanted more in-depth explanations of what all the objects in the workshop were (McSweeney, 2012).

Figure 4

A view of the Watt's workshop exhibition showing the curved glass wall separating viewers from the workshop

James Watt's workshop at the Science Museum

The contrasting approach, of displaying real scientific objects within simulated spaces, has also met with mixed success. Empires of Physics, a 1993 exhibition at the Whipple Museum of the History of Science in Cambridge, explored the production and dissemination of physics in the late nineteenth century. The exhibition’s two spaces, on different floors, contrasted laboratory settings – teaching and research in the Cavendish Laboratory and manufacture in the Cambridge Scientific Instrument Company – with the types of displays typically seen at international exhibitions (Bennett, 1995).

Entering the first gallery, The Laboratory, visitors encountered a private world, with equipment set up ready for experiments, and crowded shelves of objects. Museum-style labels were absent: the curious visitor was instead invited to browse items true to the setting, such as instrument catalogues, or laboratory manuals. In the second gallery, The Exhibition, objects were displayed in a more orderly fashion, with labels and working exhibits; the work-in-process seen in The Laboratory now displayed as the products of science.

Arnold described Empires of Physics as ‘a brave attempt to experiment with using the real space of an exhibition to suggest that science does not come ready made, but has to be both created and presented’, but cautioned that visitors who didn’t read the guidebook or speak with the Museum’s demonstrators were at a loss to understand the premise, particularly struggling with the lack of explicit interpretation in The Laboratory (Arnold, 1996, p 69).

We were conscious that telling the story of the Large Hadron Collider through recreated spaces would be difficult, but had the potential to work well if these issues were thoughtfully considered. While it could be argued that current particle physics, with its high media profile, is actually an easier prospect for visitors than eighteenth century engineering or nineteenth century physics, the spaces of CERN would be highly unfamiliar. Due to their size, the LHC spaces could not be recreated entirely faithfully within a museum gallery, so a ‘museological melange’ drawing on the creativity of the curatorial and design teams would be required.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/140207/003