Preserving CERN's legacy

At CERN, scientists from all over the world design and build innovative instruments to be implemented in the cutting-edge machines used in high-energy physics. Those instruments go on to become part of the world’s most powerful accelerators, Nobel-prize-winning detectors, unique antimatter machines, the first web servers… These are historical pieces and belong to our common heritage. But, what happens to them once they are no longer in use?


65-1-043 65-5-126 65-5-116 65-4-097 65-3-009 65-5-013New endeavours consistently require new technical developments, and the list of “old” objects belonging to a laboratory like CERN increases over time. As innovative as they might have been when they were created, they are often bulky, sometimes very delicate, and do not always look like everyday tools when they are dismantled. How best to deal with them? “A database of objects suitable for scientific exhibitions has been available on CDS for many years,” says Gigi Rolandi, Chair of CERN’s Scientific Information Policy Board (SIPB), the body in charge of the object preservation policy. “It includes over 180 different pieces that museums can borrow from CERN for a period that is negotiated on a case by case basis.”

While the historical bubble chambers are among the most photographed objects of the Microcosm exhibition, part of the ALEPH Time Projection Chamber is on display at the International Museum of Horology at La Chaux-de-Fonds (Switzerland) and the original web server is a very popular object that tours exhibitions across the world, other objects simply disappeared after being dismantled. “A policy of object preservation has been in place since 2007 when the SIPB proposed to take a systematic approach to preserving, cataloguing, and exploiting scientific objects and images, both still and moving,” says Jens Vigen, head of the CERN Scientific Information Service, which is also in charge of managing the Organization’s archives. “The first step is to correctly document all the objects and share the information for later use.”

The existing database needs more information and more accurate descriptions of the various entries. “The contribution of CERN people who actually worked on the instruments is of vital importance,” confirms James Gillies, head of CERN’s Communication Group and a member of the CERN Stakeholder Relations Office, which formally owns and manages the historical objects. “They have already helped the Library by recognising places and faces during the Mystery Photos campaign. We now need an honorary member of the personnel, or a group of people, to help us implement the policy.”

Preserving objects that bear witness to the ingenuity of the minds that created them and remind us of the hard work needed to keep cutting-edge research moving at a fast pace is the duty of everyone. If you are aware of or sit just next to a historical piece related to CERN’s history, or if you wish to volunteer to help CERN implement its object preservation policy, do not hesitate to contact the SIPB.

by Antonella Del Rosso