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

Recreating CERN’s spaces in an exhibition

The bulk of the Collider exhibition is concerned with recent and current work being done at the LHC. This was a decision taken from the outset, despite CERN’s rich and interesting history, due to fairly limited space and the likely interests of international touring venues. There was also a concern that historic objects, many of which were never used at CERN, would be incongruous or confusing displayed in the context of a ‘visit to CERN’ (Boyle, 2014). The historical overview was therefore separated from the main part of the exhibition, and was presented as a fairly ‘classic’ museum display of objects from CERN, UK universities and the Science Museum’s own collection. This explored early atomic and nuclear physics, and the foundation of CERN and its links to Cold War geopolitics. Visitors then moved on to their ‘visit’ to present-day CERN and the Large Hadron Collider.

Ludmilla Jordanova has suggested in this journal that public interest in the LHC has been generated, at least in part, by its ‘heroisation, its monumentality, even its cost’ (Jordanova, 2014). As much as the exhibition team wished to avoid hagiographic accounts of high-profile individuals such as Peter Higgs and put the ordinary scientists and engineers centre-stage, it is undeniable that the LHC itself ends up the hero of the piece. As the largest, most complex and most expensive scientific device ever built, involving the greatest number of scientists ever to work on a peaceful project, operating at extremes of temperature and probing questions about the nature of the universe, it is a compelling hook to attract visitors to a ticketed temporary exhibition (see Hobson, 2012). The machine’s ‘wow facts’ featured heavily in the exhibition marketing campaign.

Figure 11

A marketing poster for the Collider exhibition

A marketing poster for the Collider exhibition.

However, the ‘hero LHC’ was something of a double-edged sword for the exhibition team. We hoped that visitors’ curiosity about the machine might help overcome their fear of physics at least to the point of buying an exhibition ticket. On the other hand, the design would have to somehow get across to visitors the awe inspired by the real thing: it is an unforgettable experience when you first enter a CERN experimental cavern to find yourself faced with a five storey-high detector, bristling with micro-electronics and looking like something taken straight out of a science fiction blockbuster. The exhibition space would be a tiny fraction of this size.

Conscious of the need to create compelling reconstructions of CERN spaces while ensuring the safety of borrowed objects on display, the Museum appointed Nissen Richards Studio (NRS), a design firm with expertise both in museums and theatre, as creative lead for the project. NRS brought with them several theatre professionals including playwright Michael Wynne and video designer Finn Ross, both recipients of Olivier Awards. Through a series of intensive workshops the curatorial and design team mapped out various possible visitor journeys and narratives for the exhibition, as well as discussing the relative merits of a dramatic versus documentary style. For the start of the exhibition, we decided to use actors in a filmed re-imagining of events at CERN in order to engage visitors emotionally and to provide the necessary intellectual orientation, avoiding a potentially awkward attempt to splice together the words of real scientists and engineers. After this initial dramatic experience, visitors would be free to explore the world that the exhibition would create, and from then on the people they would ‘encounter’ would be real CERN staff, not actors.

Figure 12

Part of the Collider exhibition showing several wooden benches in front of a large television screen showing the exhibition introductory video

The ‘lecture theatre’ space of the exhibition where the opening film played.

The objects displayed in Collider were chosen to represent the main stages in the lifecycle of a particle beam in the LHC, beginning with the source – a hydrogen gas canister – and including key elements of the Collider and the detectors. The choice of spaces to be recreated was in turn dictated by the objects, which were displayed in simulations of the environments where they would be found at CERN. Objects related to the LHC itself, such as superconducting magnets and accelerating cavities naturally found a home in the LHC tunnel, while parts of the four detectors were displayed as if on technicians’ workbenches. The environments were recreated using flat panels with high resolution photographs of the real locations at CERN, including several metres of concrete tunnel wall, complete with safety signs, scuff marks and graffiti. Additional 3D set dressing was then added, including workbenches, tools, shipping crates and computer monitors. The objects were enclosed in showcases or placed on plinths integrated into the stage sets, highlighted in yellow to help avoid confusion between real objects and set dressing.

Figure 13

A number of components of an LHC magnet in a yellow display case

Components of an LHC magnet on display in Collider, with CERN-style object labels.

The conceit of the exhibition as a ‘visit to CERN' presented a challenge in how to deliver content without the curatorial tone intruding and potentially breaking the sense of immersion. The voice of the Science Museum, usually encountered through object labels and text panels, was removed and instead the content was delivered in a ‘CERN natural’ form. Object labels remained, disguised as CERN-style forms used to track pieces of equipment as they moved around the laboratory, but text panels were done away with altogether. Abstract scientific concepts were discussed using hand-drawn sketches on whiteboards, as if drawn by a supervisor explaining a concept to one of his students. CERN’s own history was explored using a series of pin-boards, with images and Post-it notes recording significant events in the lab’s past.

Figure 14

A whiteboard from the exhibition showing an explanation of what atoms and hadrons are

An example of a Collider whiteboard diagram explaining the structure of atoms.

The objects were accompanied by video and audio recordings of engineers and physicists. In the ‘tunnel’, two engineers appeared as full size projections alongside the objects, while in the ‘detector lab’ each object was accompanied by an audio recording playing through a suitably shabby speaker. A small radio in the tunnel also played an edited documentary recounting the events of September 2008, when the LHC suffered a major ‘incident’ in which 750m of the Collider was damaged, setting operations back by a year. As well as delivering content, we hoped that using the words of CERN’s own personnel would give a human face to the complex physics and engineering, and enliven the exhibition spaces; as well as talking about their role on the LHC, the interviewees discussed the challenges and advantages of working in a large multinational organisation.

Figure 15

A recreation of the LHC tunnel in the Collider exhibition with LHC objects on display and a video projected onto a wall showing a CERN engineer giving information

Collider’s recreation of the LHC tunnel, with engineer Marta Bajko explaining how the superconducting magnets work.

For aspects of the content without objects to lead us, there was more discussion about which of CERN’s spaces should be reproduced. An early concept for the scripted opening film was that it would be set in the CERN Control Centre, where visitors would ‘meet’ a number of fictional engineers who operate the LHC. During the development of the exhibition, it became clear that although this would be an effective vehicle for explaining what the LHC is and how it works, it would not allow for a discussion of the purpose of the LHC or recent discoveries that had been reported in the media (the Higgs boson discovery occurred while the exhibition script was being developed), as Control Centre engineers are not engaged in active particle physics research.

Instead, the first part of the film was set in CERN’s main auditorium, on the day when the discovery of the Higgs boson was revealed to members of one of the main experiments. On entering the exhibition, visitors were invited to take their seats in the auditorium, gaining privileged access to an event that in reality was closed to the public. The film told the story of the discovery using a number of characters whose words were based heavily on first-hand accounts, introducing both the purpose of the LHC and demonstrating the collaborative and international nature of the work. The Control Centre sequence, exploring what the LHC is and how it works, followed.

The greatest design challenge would be to deliver the sense of scale and awe that a real visitor to CERN experiences when visiting the four large particle detectors. In a fairly low gallery, and with the exhibition structure height limited to just over three metres so that it could be shipped internationally for the tour, this clearly could not be achieved using stage sets. Instead, Finn Ross Studio developed a 270 degree projected animation. Visitors stood in the centre of a large circular space, immersed in a piece of video art that zoomed down in perspective, from standing in front of a 15 metre tall particle detector, to inside a collision between two individual subatomic particles. Accompanied by a specially arranged orchestral track, the collision provided the audio-visual climax of the exhibition. While the animation gave an overview of how the LHC works and what it does, we avoided a spoken explanatory narrative: the aim here was to replicate something of the sense of awe on entering a detector cavern, and to explore particle physics as something beautiful in its own right.

The most difficult topic the exhibition had to tackle was how discoveries in particle physics are made using statistical analysis of large quantities of data. The abstracted and dislocated nature of this work made choosing an appropriate space challenging. In the end a faithful recreation of a CERN office corridor along with the office of a research physicist involved in the Higgs boson discovery was chosen. This was partly to provide a more reassuring visitor experience than the unfamiliar underground spaces – the content in this section, about the Higgs boson, being the most complex in the exhibition – while allowing us to provide a rich and light-hearted portrait of daily life at CERN, including conference posters, in-jokes, bus schedules, adverts for the table tennis club and personal effects like an abandoned pair of shoes and a cardigan. As Ludmilla Jordanova argues, ‘It is the responsibility of science museums to explain how science comes about’ (Jordanova, 2014); showing the reality of day-to-day work can help to temper heroic representations of science and scientists.

Figure 16

Recreation of a CERN student office in the Collider exhibition, with a cluttered desk, filing cabinet and whiteboard

The recreation of a CERN student office, including a whiteboard explanation of the Higgs boson.

As a conclusion, the exhibition looked to the future of the LHC and what questions might be addressed in the coming years. The curators were keen on a recreation of Restaurant 1, where physicists would discuss their future research over a coffee, illustrating CERN’s internationalism and democratic nature. However, the designers advised that given the limited space available in the gallery it would not be possible to illustrate the size of Restaurant 1, and a reconstruction of a small area might feel too mundane. Instead, we opted for a more abstracted space, taking visitors out of the world of CERN to a digital environment showing the network of physicists involved in LHC research around the world.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/140207/007