Collider – the LHC in London

In November the London Science Museum will open a major new exhibition about the LHC. The project marks an ambitious new approach for the museum who will work with an eclectic design team that includes a video artist and a playwright. Both Olivier Award winners, they are more renowned for their work on stage and screen than inside museums.


Image courtesy of Science Museum / Nissen Richards Studio.

The Science Museum team came to Geneva expecting to be blown away by the extraordinary physics and engineering at CERN and they weren’t disappointed. But what impressed them most was the people who made it all happen. Physicists of all kinds, restaurant staff, engineers, administrators, those working in transport and logistics, all had in common a passion for CERN and an enthusiasm for communicating their work. “What really struck us was how every single person mentioned the spirit of international collaboration and the importance of curiosity,” Alison Boyle told the Bulletin. Curator of Modern Physics and Astronomy, Alison leads the team creating the new exhibition.

The museum’s first visit to CERN was a fantastic surprise. But how to convey this sense of excitement of being part of the adventure? The museum’s answer was to choose a design team that focused strongly on drama so that they could re-create the experience of a visit to CERN. Indeed, key elements of the new exhibition will be based on scripted dramas written by the playwright Michael Wynne taking place in recreations of CERN locations by the video artist Finn Ross. Exhibition locations will include the CCC, the Main Auditorium, the LHC tunnel and one of the LHC experiments - immersive spaces for the visitor to explore and discover personal accounts from the people who work there.

“The Collider exhibition is a really important part of the Museum's ambitions to put cutting-edge science on the cultural agenda,” says Alison. “Particle physics is a tough subject for museums - the scientific concepts are way beyond most visitors' prior knowledge, and the technology is unfamiliar and often baffling at first glance. The LHC's extremes of scale - from the enormous machinery to the subatomic world - are not very suited to being displayed in glass showcases!” There will of course be objects, both from the Museum’s collections and also from CERN and experiments.  From the inevitable LHC magnets to the more personal, such as Roberto Saban’s bicycle that has many a story attached to its travels in the LHC tunnel.

Harry Cliff, a Cambridge LHCb physicist who has been specially appointed as the Museum's Fellow of Modern Physics to lead the exhibition content, has enjoyed the experience. “It’s been a thoroughly rewarding process and I'm constantly reminded just how exciting the work being done at CERN really is by the enthusiasm that the exhibition team of non-physicists has for the subject, which can be easy to forget when you've just spent two days debugging some piece of ROOT code,” he says. “It's probably fair to say that I've learnt as much about CERN and the LHC as I have about museums. I've been really fortunate to meet people from across the lab who I would never normally have encountered by working on LHCb. In fact, the project would never have got off the ground without the help of the many physicists, engineers and other CERN staff who have been so generous with their time in helping us bring the LHC to the Science Museum.” This sentiment is echoed by Alison: “everyone at CERN has been incredibly enthusiastic and helpful - from finding us objects and digital data, to helping to transport the objects to London, giving up time for interviews and filming, explaining how everything works and, most importantly, sharing the behind-the-scenes stories that will bring the LHC to life for our visitors.”

This investment will benefit CERN’s own exhibition projects, with the renovation of Microcosm on the cards for 2014. All new film footage taken for the exhibition will be available for use at CERN, as will any content developed by the museum.

Collider will open on 13 November 2013 at the Science Museum in London. The exhibition will run for six months before travelling to other venues around the world. There will be free entry for all CERN badge holders.

by Emma Sanders