Go back to article: Museums theme – Quest for Absolute Zero: A Human Story about Rivalry and Cold

New approach

How then should Rijksmuseum Boerhaave translate this success story about liquid helium and the man who turned Leiden into the ‘coldest place on Earth’ into an appealing exhibition for the general public? That this would be a major challenge was certain. At the start came the issue of the degree of difficulty. Anyone wishing to explain the helium apparatus is faced with a considerable challenge. Thermodynamics is not a subject that gives many people a warm, cosy feeling. Nonetheless, in an exhibition about achieving temperatures close to absolute zero, it is difficult to avoid mentioning the underlying principles. But just how far should you go? For a specialist, the Joule-Thomson effect – the cooling of a gas as it is forced through a porous plug and subsequently expanded – is essential in producing liquid helium. For the uninitiated, however, the interest is minimal, and the question was to what extent he or she would be willing to make any effort to, for example, understand the functioning of a refrigerator.

Then there was the problem of the low ‘bling’ value of the object in questions. While brass proportional compasses from the Dutch Golden Century or an eighteenth-century vacuum pump by Jan van Musschenbroek from the Leiden Physics Cabinet are beautiful to behold, even if you do not understand their operation, the aesthetic appeal of an ethylene boiling bottle or a Cailletet pump is limited (see Figure 6) (de Clercq, 1997).

Figure 6

Black and white photograph of an ethylene boiling bottle from 1885

The Cailletet pump, which Kamerlingh Onnes equipped with reverse pistons with mercury on top to keep the gas being pumped round free from impurities

Their very coarseness creates a sense of distance. Ask a curator at Rijksmuseum Boerhaave to identify objects that appeal to a broad public and he (or she) will undoubtedly rummage around in the medical collection, preferably for something to do with infectious diseases that lead to malformation of the face – shudder as you enjoy the horror. In that respect, the collection of the Leiden cold laboratory has little to offer. Colossal compression and suction pumps made by the Societé Génevoise in Basel or the 1908 Leiden helium liquefier may be enough to take technicians and physicists to seventh heaven, but such specialists are limited in number and the general public has no real interest in difficult-to-understand devices and instruments that exude nothing but a taste of things technical from their glass cases or platforms. The general public is only ready to accept into their heart these difficult objects if they form part of an accessible and attractive cultural or historical story.

On top of that, the main character in the exhibition, Heike Kamerlingh Onnes himself was not even a colourful figure. The ‘absolute zero man’ was a hard worker who operated with diplomacy and outside his laboratory led a relatively invisible life. The 64 million-dollar question for the exhibition makers at Rijksmuseum Boerhaave was who would possibly wish to identify with a bald-headed boffin?

To tackle all of these problems, the decision was taken to base the exhibition around the theme of ‘Rivalry in science’. The liquefaction of helium is not presented as a technical feat of arms worthy of respect, but as the apotheosis of an international struggle. The starting point was that the quest for absolute zero is an exciting story peopled by colourful characters. Tragedy, heroism, disappointment, joy, setback, argument and eventually the victory by Kamerlingh Onnes on 10 July 1908 – all are featured. The human scale and the colourful story behind the man and his pump had to be the centrepiece, rather than the scientific background or the technical solutions. The choice was to focus on Kamerlingh Onnes’ rivalry with Dewar in London, setting up a competitive story that is very familiar in public accounts of science. From the perspective of the historian of science such a ‘one dimensional’ approach is problematic. On the other hand, rivalry is part of science and focusing an exhibition on this aspect has its own merits. To tackle the rivalry simplification, the exhibition was accompanied by the book Quest for Absolute Zero, written for the occasion by Dirk van Delft, expert in the history of low temperature physics.

The choice of exhibition designer proved important in this connection. The layout had to break with the clean-cut, aesthetic form of the traditional exhibitions at Rijksmuseum Boerhaave, for which the same agency – The Hague-based 2D3D – was always awarded the contract, and always with the same budget. The new chosen agency was Meulendijks Art Direction based in Rotterdam. They came up with a playful, theatrical approach that almost magically transformed the two Boerhaave galleries of the museum (the location for all temporary exhibitions) into an appealing ‘theatre of cold’. In financial terms, too, Meulendijks was given more freedom. The exhibition budget was more than twice the amount usually spent in the past. The museum was able to allow itself this luxury, having attracted external funding.

For the first time in its history, Rijksmuseum Boerhaave had actively – and successfully – gone in search of sponsors in the run-up to the Quest for Absolute Zero. The cultural funds, representatives of business and industry and the Dutch scientific community dug deep. The funds appreciated the cultural historical approach and the involvement of external parties in the project, in particular the Lakenhal City Museum and the Law Faculty of the University of Leiden (which since 2005 has been headquartered in Kamerlingh Onnes Laboratory). Linde Gas, international suppliers of helium and cryogenic equipment, came forward as main sponsors. The company is named after Carl von Linde, the German cold pioneer who at the end of the nineteenth century established a refrigerator factory in Munich, thereby taking the first step in creating what has today become a world-encompassing empire. In the exhibition, Carl von Linde was present in the ‘hall of fame’ of low temperature scientists (in the Quest for Absolute Zero book the von Linde company was presented in the chapter on applications). Government institutions also took part: NWO (the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research) and the Bèta technology platform chipped in, as did ‘physics’ foundations such as the Lorentzfonds, the Pieter Zeemanstichting, the Gorter Fonds and the Stichting Physica. Liquid helium, it soon became clear, was assured a warm welcome.

In the new design the content of the exhibition tied in closely with its form. The quest for absolute zero was broken down into a series of episodes, each of which featured rivalry, heroism, tragedy and triumph. The story started with the liquefaction of oxygen (1877; Karol Olszewski and Sigmunt Wroblewski versus Raoul Pictet), followed by liquid hydrogen (1898) and liquid helium (1908; James Dewar versus Heike Kamerlingh Onnes), after which the struggle still went on taking the visitor via Bose-Einstein condensation (1996; Wolfgang Ketterle versus Carl Wiemann) to today’s leading edge of cold research. Today, absolute zero has been reached to within one billionth of a degree. The challenge lay in avoiding a series of unconnected feature pieces, as is normally the case in the permanent presentation of Rijksmuseum Boerhaave, but instead selecting objects for their contribution to the overall story, and placing them in a refined manner in a context, thereby melding them into a single coherent unit. The theatrical background from the exhibition’s designers almost automatically resulted in an evocative and accessible design that enabled visitors to empathise with the story. It appeared as if the main characters from the Quest for Absolute Zero had momentarily left their experimental laboratories, to allow the visitor a peek behind the scenes.

Figure 7

Colour photograph of an exhibition dedicated to the quest for absolute zero

After Kamerlingh Onnes’ retirement the Leiden Physical Laboratory had two directors: Willem Keesom (left) and Wander Johannes de Haas

It is an objective of Rijksmuseum Boerhaave, even in its temporary exhibitions, to start with pieces from its own collection, wherever necessary supplemented by loaned exhibits from third parties. After all, the museum itself started with the goal of maintaining the real thing. For this exhibition a number of objects (pumps, electrical resistors, cold bottles) were transferred from the permanent presentation. The fragile helium liquefier, the absolute jewel in the crown, was not included due to the risk of fracturing the glass if it were moved. Instead, visitors to the Quest for Absolute Zero were presented with a photograph and the firm recommendation to make a point of visiting the original downstairs. From the museum’s store room came Kamerlingh Onnes’ own massive roll-top desk, barometers standing metres tall, and thermometers. Most astonishing, in terms of size at least, a cryostat recently removed from the measuring gallery of the new Kamerlingh Onnes Laboratory was transferred to Rijksmuseum Boerhaave with all the accompanying instruments for the millikelvin range. Original observation books and other archive documents and personal effects completed the pieces on display.

No exhibition could be complete without loaned pieces. Among the most important were a Dewar flask dated 1894 (a twin-walled vacuum thermos flask, produced by James Dewar in the Royal Institution), and the glass tubes in which William Ramsay (in 1895) sent the helium gas he had just discovered to Cracow rather than to the Royal Institution because of a dispute with Dewar. Another significant loan was a severely-damaged manometer from Cracow, the result of an explosion in Olszewki’s laboratory in that same city (Wroblewski, from whom Olszewki was estranged shortly after their success with liquid oxygen, died from his injuries, following an accidental fire). High drama indeed!

To make the exhibition more attractive, and to convincingly present in all its glory the underlying story of the rivalry between researchers – every one of whom wanted to be first – no stone was left unturned. To clarify the basic principles of the underlying technology, students of the Rotterdam art academy produced easily digestible animations, and in the exhibition itself, low-threshold demonstration rigs were installed, that could easily be operated by the visitors. To create a laboratory atmosphere, in addition to the original pumps and cold bottles, life-size blow-ups of original photographs were featured. A cardboard Dewar and Kamerlingh Onnes debated with one another via projected text bubbles and a radio play was even produced of Kamerlingh Onnes’ eyewitness report of the liquefaction of helium on 10 July 1908, published by the KNAW (Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences). Use was also made of historical film fragments and key scenes from the TV documentary Absolute Zero (2008) by the British director and producer David Dugan. In that documentary, actors replayed the triumph of 1908 against the background of the second-generation helium liquefier, erected in the Leiden Oortgebouw, accompanied by ancient pumps and magnets. The scene in which Mrs Kamerlingh Onnes feeds scraps of bread to her hard-at-work husband featured prominently. Specially for children, at various point throughout the exhibition, mini refrigerators were placed, each containing an assignment, for which prizes could be won on completion. At various points in the story, modern applications were displayed. Close to the Dewar flasks, for example, modern thermos flasks were featured, while the early-twentieth-century refrigerator from General Electric was accompanied by its ultramodern counterpart.

Didn’t all this attention to context, to image, to sound and to moving elements distract from the real objects? On the contrary. Take the helium liquefier. If this were simply an isolated object on an altar, you could write on its showcase text that it is the instrument in which helium was liquefied for the first time at a record temperature of four degrees above absolute zero. However, if the same liquefier is displayed as the climax of an international struggle that lasted decades, there is so much more to say. In that case, the visitor could learn of Kamerlingh Onnes’ many years of hard work, his perseverance and his ‘big science’ approach. By telling these stories, the visitor’s awareness of the historical significance of the helium liquefier can only be enhanced. The one thing you have to make sure of is to not let the object be overpowered by too glaring a design.

To summarise, an attractive exhibition starts with a good story. A story that’s captivating for the visitor, a story that depicts science as a human endeavour peopled with characters of flesh and blood, afflicted with their qualities and weaknesses. A story with a message that goes beyond the topic that is being presented, a story that communicates to the public what science is about in a more general sense, a story that deals with the position of the scientist as a human being. A story that seeks connections between the topic of the exhibition and the contemporary world of the visitor.

In the case of Quest for Absolute Zero this approach led to a process of selecting artefacts on the basis of their potential to contribute to the story. The objects in the exhibition had to trigger the visitor’s empathy. Aesthetics or the iconic status of an object are less important in such an approach. A distorted gauge from the Polish laboratory of Karl Olszewski, the consequence of an explosion, shows like no other masterpiece that the quest for absolute zero was not without risks – risks the scientists involved were willing to take. And Cryo-1, the freshly acquired low temperature machinery from the Kamerlingh Onnes Laboratory, shows in its shiny complexity and overwhelming dimensions how the quest for absolute zero has changed. No longer a romantic enterprise with scientists working on their own as they did at the turn of the last century, it now involves large scale industrial efforts requiring lots of space, lots of technicians and lots of money.

An important factor in the success of Quest for Absolute Zero was the collaboration with the Lakenhal art museum, just a few minutes’ walk from Rijksmuseum Boerhaave. The Kamerlingh Onnes family excelled in producing cold, but also in producing works of art. Heike’s brother Menso and Menso’s children Harm and Jenny together produced a huge number of paintings, watercolours and pencil drawings in which they also featured many of the people and objects relating to the cold laboratory (see Figure 8). Heike supported these activities and encouraged his nephew Harm to visit his laboratory, and to bring his sketchbook with him. In 1920, he also asked Harm to design stained-glass windows on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Zeeman effect, nicely depicting the Nobel Prize-winning discovery by Pieter Zeeman and its theoretical explanation by Hendrik Lorentz. In order to bring together both worlds, a Lakenhal art museum exhibition entitled The Kamerlingh Onnes Family: Cold & Art ran parallel to the exhibition at the Rijksmuseum Boerhaave. By working with a single entrance ticket to both exhibitions, a sort of cross-pollination occurred between the two different types of visiting public, encouraged by the proximity of both locations. This combination was much appreciated.

Figure 8

Pencil sketch of two moustachioed men in conversation

Heike Kamerlingh Onnes and Albert Einstein, 1920. Drawing by Harm Kamerlingh Onnes

Also, elsewhere in Leiden, there was interest in the ‘absolute zero man’. There were minor exhibitions about Kamerlingh Onnes in the Leiden University Library (books, letters and magazines), in the Leiden Municipal Library (featuring the same sort of material) and in the Kamerlingh Onnes Building, where photographs of the former laboratory were exhibited together with a series of sketches by Harm Kamerlingh Onnes. As extras, we organised a bicycle tour of historical locations related to science; in the framework of an educational programme, schools could book a combined ticket to visit the exhibition and the Freezing Physics show, provided by physics students.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170812/004