Collider at the Science Museum

How do you curate an exhibition about something you can’t even see? This ambitious exhibition is dedicated to one of the greatest endeavours in the history of subatomic physics research. The sheer size of the Large Hadron Collider and the fact that it is searching for particles invisible to the human eye means that this exhibition has had to take a particularly creative approach. Alison Boyle, Curator of Modern Physics and the Collider exhibition at the Science Museum explains how art and science have come together to bring the abstract into focus.

The Museum started initial discussions with CERN over two years ago, and our content team has been working on the project since January 2012. The creative team, led by Nissen Richards Studio, was brought on board in Autumn 2012.

During exhibition development we were aware that the Higgs boson might be found, as encouraging signs had already been seen at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and at the Tevatron in Chicago. In the end the timings worked out very well for us as the 4 July 2012 announcement (confirming that a new particle had been found to the level of statistical significance that constitutes a discovery in particle physics) came early enough for us to incorporate it into our narrative, while the October 2013 award of the Nobel Prize in Physics to Peter Higgs provided a great boost for the exhibition launch.

The exhibition is primarily aimed at independent adults and at educational groups aged 16+. This decision was taken because of the complexity of the subject matter. However, we’re aware that some younger people may have a particular interest in the subject area and they are very welcome to visit.

Our curators and audience research teams carry out extensive research and both elements contribute to the focus. Our content team already had expertise in the work of the LHC and the history of particle physics, and built on this with lengthy interviews with scientists and engineers at CERN and in the UK. Our audience research team gathered evidence of what had and hadn’t been successful in previous exhibitions on the topic at the Science Museum and CERN. Both strands led us to develop the approach described below.

There are two major challenges with interpreting this subject in a museum context: size (the LHC is far bigger than a museum, studying particles that are too small to see) and the complexity of the subject matter.

We agreed with CERN early on that engineering would be a major focus of the exhibition – very often exhibitions on this subject tend to focus on abstract scientific questions, which are difficult for visitors to engage with and can result in tangible objects being sidelined. But we still had to cover the abstract science which the LHC is designed to study.

Our memories of visiting CERN, and evidence from the audience research that addressing the extremes of scale was a key aim that previous exhibitions had not managed to address, convinced us that staging the exhibition as a trip to CERN would provide a different take on the subject and allow us to set the objects and the science into context.

We use a range of formats in the exhibition – film, animation, images, text, sound and tactile sets. We always try to offer our visitors a variety of ways to engage, to support different learning styles.

The majority of the scientific content is actually delivered in a fairly low-tech way, on graphic panels. However these do not look like typical museum interpretation – they are presented as handwritten jottings and drawings on flipcharts and whiteboards, as if visitors have stumbled across something left there by one of CERN’s scientists or engineers. This was chosen partly to maintain the conceit of a visit to CERN and also to explain some very complex concepts in a visitor-friendly way. Co-curator Dr Harry Cliff (a particle physicist who works on one of the LHC’s experiments) and animator Mel Northover worked closely on these, and the feedback from audience testing was very positive.

Visitors in Detection Section, Collider Exhibition, Science Museum c.Nick Rochowski 2013
Visitors in Detection Section, Collider Exhibition, Science Museum c.Nick Rochowski 2013

From an early stage the Museum team agreed that we needed to start the ‘CERN visit’ with a dramatic introduction. This would provide an overview of the science and engineering that visitors could build on throughout the rest of their exhibition journey, and crucially help to emotionally engage audiences: the people of CERN are key to our story. We discussed whether this should be a documentary or fictionalised approach and opted for the latter, because we needed the scientists and engineers to say things in an introductory way that they would not do in real life. So the characters in the opening film are created by Michael Wynne, but are composites of real people we have interviewed.

The other unusual approach we took was to address the scale challenge: cathedral-sized detectors studying tiny invisible particles. Here, Finn Ross and Adam Young have created a 270-degree animated projection that takes visitors into a detector cavern and right down to the heart of a particle collision.

The project budget is £1million, which covers staff costs, consultants’ fees, exhibition fit-out and operational running costs.

Collider is at the Science Museum until 6th May 2014.

Creative Team

Exhibition Design / Creative Director – NISSEN RICHARDS Studio | Video Design / Animation – Finn Ross Studio | 2d Design / Drawn Animation – Northover & Brown | Playwright – Michael Wynne | Lighting – Studio ZNA | Sound Design / Composition – Carolyn Downing


Project Manager – Flemming Associates | Principal Contractor – The Hub | AV Hardware – Sysco | Graphics – Service Graphics