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

Reactions to the exhibition

Collider opened to the public on 13 November 2013, with media interest greatly boosted by the award of the Nobel Prize for Physics to Peter Higgs a month earlier. The approach of recreating CERN’s spaces was widely praised by critics, with The Independent’s Steve Connor writing that the ‘pocket-sized’ CERN was ‘in many ways...better than the real thing’ (‘A smashing show’, Connor, 2013), and The Economist noting that in addition to providing scientific explanations ‘the Museum pulled off the even harder trick of depicting CERN’s character’.

Particle physicists and CERN personnel who attended the exhibition broadly responded positively, with Director-General Rolf Heuer saying that he ‘recognised CERN’ in the exhibition, his only light-hearted criticism being that the size of the office space was far too large for a single PhD student. During the exhibition’s run in London a number of LHC personnel visited the exhibition with their children so that they could see what their parents’ workplaces were like – under-12s are not allowed underground at CERN.

The main test, of course, was how non-specialist museum visitors would respond, and as is usual within the Science Museum, summative evaluation was carried out.[6] In total 53,778 people visited Collider, of which 90 per cent were adults. One of the key aims of the project was to grow the Science Museum’s independent adult audience, and this seems to have been met to some extent; 22 per cent of visitors were completely new to the Science Museum, and a further 49 per cent had not been to the Museum for more than a year.

It is interesting to note that 40 per cent of visitors described themselves as having a keen interest in science, compared to 11 per cent among general Museum visitors. This is perhaps unsurprising given the subject of the exhibition, but also clearly indicates that the Museum had successfully engaged with this substantial and arguably under-served audience by offering them some ‘hard’ science.

We were pleased to find that 94 per cent of exhibition visitors were either ‘very satisfied’ or ‘fairly satisfied’ with the exhibition. Visitors responded well to the design and found the immersive environment ‘highly engaging’. They felt that the interpretation communicated the human side of life at CERN, the international nature of the project and the complexity of the engineering effectively and were particularly engaged by the full-height projections of real engineers and physicists. The most popular spaces in the exhibition were the ‘high-tech’ 270-degree collision projection and the mundane but more familiar office space of the particle physics researcher (Robinson, 2014).

However, with the recreated spaces visitors also experienced some of the issues found in previous museum examples. Despite the use of a graphic language to highlight real objects, visitors were sometimes unclear what was real or fake within the environment. The unfamiliarity of particle physics objects and the fact that most were labelled as prototypes (without making the role of a prototype in the LHC’s engineering and design process clear) is likely to have been a contributing factor and more explicit label text should reduce this problem.

Linked to this, some visitors were unsure as to whether the objects were ‘actual size’, or scale models. There was an apparent dissonance between the descriptions and representations of ‘cathedral-sized’ spaces and machines in the immersive films and exhibition marketing and the more everyday scale of the artefacts on show. Although diagrams were used to place small artefacts in the context of the much larger devices of which they were components, many visitors seemed to miss them or fail to understand their meaning. There is an important lesson to learn here: though diagrams and blueprints are useful to those with experience of reading them, to many visitors they are quite opaque and alternative methods should be found to convey scale and context.

However, the 270-degree projection space did seem to overcome the physical limitations of the gallery, giving visitors a much better feel for the scale of the LHC. It was also pleasing to find that although this space carried no narration or factual information the visuals alone were sufficient to give most visitors a clear understanding of how the particles collide and how these collisions are detected and studied.

A particularly interesting finding of the research was that visitors felt somewhat let down by what they perceived as CERN’s shabbiness. Mass media portrayals of the LHC’s visually spectacular detectors, and CERN’s reputation as an innovative and cutting-edge laboratory, led visitors to expect something much more glamorous. For the Museum, showing the reality of life at CERN was part of the exhibition learning strategy, but this provides a useful caution about balancing curatorial desire for realistic reconstructions with visitors’ preconceived expectations, however misguided these may be. The exhibition marketing has a role to play here.

The desire to create a realistic simulation of a visit to CERN, coupled with the abandonment of overt museum-style content, required visitors to work harder to understand the content. Some visitors lamented the lack of interactive exhibits, which we had avoided as one would not find these at CERN. In fact, it is extremely difficult to conceive of an interactive installation that could explain the physical phenomena under investigation with any degree of scientific accuracy, so for this particular topic guided tours and talks by particle physicists are likely to be a better way to provide in-depth content.

The ‘visit’ style also led some visitors to wonder if the exhibition was a mouthpiece for CERN – particularly as they were aware of the laboratory’s high media profile (Rostvik, 2014). In fact, CERN had no editorial control over the exhibition content, although the curatorial team inevitably had a close working relationship with CERN personnel. The portrayal of CERN in the exhibition ultimately reflected the experience of a visit to the site, and we believed that visitors to the recreation were just as capable of forming their own opinion of CERN as visitors to the real place.

Ultimately, Collider did not set out to provide a critical perspective on CERN (although the historical display prior to the ticketed exhibition explored broader themes about particle physics), or to teach visitors complex fundamental physics. The aim was to enthuse visitors about cutting-edge science, overcoming their fears of an abstract and complex subject. We have found inviting visitors into the spaces of CERN, in all their messy reality, to be highly effective in this regard, with over 90 per cent of visitors understanding the core messages of the exhibition (Robinson, 2014). Although developed independently, the exhibition’s approach is somewhat similar to the documentary film Particle Fever directed by Mark Levinson, which followed the lives of a number of particle physicists in the years leading up to the discovery of the Higgs boson and its subsequent impact. (This was not available to view before exhibition opening, but was screened during the London run). Alan Friedman, consultant in museum development and science communication, noted that ‘the film can communicate something vitally important about science – as long as we accept that a part of science and of science education lies in the affective domain. This film can show what most textbooks and most museum exhibitions do not communicate successfully: the interests, attitudes, and emotions people feel when they learn and do STEM’ (Friedman, 2013, original emphasis).

Recreated spaces, with their capacity for affective learning, can be an important part of the exhibition toolkit, and we suspect Collider will not be a lone example in the sciences as curators once again embrace reconstructions. Combined with insights from historians re-engaging with laboratory studies, the approach offers an intriguing prospect for future interpretation in science and technology museums.

Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank all those involved in creating Collider.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/140207/008