Immersing visitors in the wonder of science
As part of our series “Overlapping perspectives on Science Gateway”, Emma Sanders, Head of the Exhibitions Section in CERN’s Education, Communication and Outreach group has agreed to share how her professional trajectory and CERN Science Gateway have become intricately interweaved.
Science communication, a relatively new field of study
Emma graduated in physics and astronomy in 1992 and pursued her study with a Masters in radio astronomy, which she completed in 1993. Out of this Masters, she then knew she wanted to move into science communication, for which she had developed a passion.
“In those days, there were no higher education courses in the field in the UK, in comparison with today with so many science communication education paths available,” Emma recalls. She therefore wrote to several institutions offering to work for free in exchange for training.
Her first job was to help organise the first-ever National Science Week in the UK, based on the model of the Fête de la Science in France. The British Association for the Advancement of Science (now known as the British Science Association) brought her into this organisation and after a few months of volunteer work, they employed her and integrated her into the team.
After a couple of years at the British Association, she moved to the BBC’s World Service Science Unit where she worked on a variety of radio programmes from news to features. During this time, she also started writing for publications such as Physics World and New Scientist and was appointed media representative for the Institute of Physics.
“At the British Association’s annual conference in the UK, I met Peggie Rimmer, who at the time was the Communication Group Leader at CERN. She was looking to recruit someone to work on exhibitions and when the post opened, she advised me to apply, which I did … and I got the job.”
An extremely creative place
This is how Emma, in her early career, arrived at CERN in January 1996. Ever since, Emma has worked on the conception, installation, operation and evaluation of CERN exhibitions.
In particular, she developed the Microcosm exhibition which remains CERN’s flagship exhibition until the CERN Science Gateway opens, featuring new exhibitions which Emma gives us a glimpse of further on in this article.
She adds with a smile that she also designed an exhibition for the LHC pop-up book, still a three-dimensional exhibition but on a much smaller scale.
Her 25-year career at CERN has seen her passion and dedication for the place grow every day.
“What is exciting about CERN is that it is an extremely creative place. There are always new ideas and initiatives, some bubbling up from grass roots and some coming from above. It’s a very motivating environment to work in,” says Emma.
It has never been the expertise of a single person
All through the interview, Emma insists that whatever she was responsible to deliver, behind it there has always been teamwork. When I comment that she has built thorough expertise on the art of exhibitions, she corrects my statement by adding:
“It is a team effort, you only build expertise by exchanging with other people and absorbing some of their knowledge and know-how. Today, I work with people from all sorts of backgrounds, from physics and communication experts, social scientists, experts in informal learning and hands-on experiments, designers and many more. We have so far involved over 90 CERN scientists, engineers and computer scientists in our work on Science Gateway. In addition, we regularly interact with professional bodies in the field of exhibitions. Over the years, the approach to designing exhibitions has changed enormously and we are constantly improving.“
Currently, Emma’s team is composed of seven people, responsible for all of CERN’s exhibitions. Their activities are not solely concentrated on Science Gateway, they also cover CERN’s 11 visit itineraries, the permanent exhibitions in Microcosm and the Globe, and CERN’s travelling offer which includes both exhibitions that go to all corners of the world to showcase CERN, and an object heritage collection that is available for loan. The team regularly works with other museums across the Member States, producing CERN content for external projects.
Targeting a new audience
Emma is very conscious of the necessity to encourage students to embark on scientific careers. To do that, she explains that the approach to outreach is changing to focus on new audiences.
“In the past, we have focused much of our attention on those who had already started their journey into science, the science fans. We still want to serve their thirst for science, but there is more recognition in the field today that we need to make an effort to reach out and attract new audiences: those who have no science capital at home and therefore might not yet have envisaged going into science.“
Letting our discussion flow, Emma and I start comparing our childhood backgrounds, and how exposed we were to science. Whilst a scientific career was not part of my childhood landscape, Emma recognises that the way her father spoke to her about science definitely awakened her curiosity.
“It is now recognised that an effective way to improve diversity and enrich science with new ideas is to reach out to new audiences, both children from families with low science capital and also younger children, showing them how exciting science can be before education choices are made. This change of direction is to me one of the most interesting aspects of the CERN Science Gateway project and a huge opportunity.“
Indeed, the CERN Science Gateway will offer laboratory activities for children aged 5 and up and the new exhibitions will include experimentation developed for age 8 and up.
The beauty of the CERN model applied to science communication
Playing devils ‘advocate, I object to Emma that whatever new audience CERN exhibitions target, it is still only the local community or the people who can afford to travel to CERN who will benefit from these efforts. I realised I was definitely wrong as Emma gives an energetic reply:
“This is where the beauty of CERN comes in! CERN is built on massive international collaboration and we also find this spirit of openness in our work on exhibitions. We get a huge amount of help from science centres around the world and in return we will be sharing everything we are developing for the content of our exhibitions with all these institutions. The content will therefore have a much wider impact.
Science Gateway has an advisory committee that includes museum directors from several of our Member States. We also have many ties to other science centres and museums through professional networks such as ECSITE (https://www.ecsite.eu/).
The content that we develop already has an impact around the world through our travelling exhibitions, remote connections to CERN, our loan programme of exhibition material and our involvement in co-development of external exhibitions. We actively seek that our ideas are reproduced. Not just copied, but owned, further developed and transformed into new ideas.“
Emma gives an example of how CERN’s open collaboration model can be found in the design of exhibitions:
“Just this week, we have been chatting with people from the Phaenomena team in Zurich . We looked at themes we have in common and what we can share. This happens every day in the science exhibitions world, just as it does in the physics world. Our collaborative work will have a much wider impact than just the local area.“
A more science savvy world
In addition to nurturing primary school children’s interest in science, there is another important new category of potential visitors targeted by CERN exhibitions.
“We want to attract visitors who will not necessarily become scientists but who are nonetheless interested in finding out more. It is important we reach out and are accessible to non-scientists, to create a more science-savvy world.
Today, when facts and ‘alternative facts’ can be given the same amount of importance and attention, we need science more than ever. We would like our visitors to get a feel for scientific methodology, the importance of rigorous observation and the fact that experiments are repeatable. Our approach is not to simply transmit information; rather it is to involve our visitors in the scientific process through hands-on experimentation.”
Emma also underlines the importance of putting the accent on the people who do the research, design the machines and make CERN work. “Particle Physics is very abstract, but when visitors discover it through the passion of the people who work at CERN, it can really draw them in. This is what we have been doing in Microcosm, where our visitors have the opportunity to listen to the people behind science, of all ages, jobs, professional fields and nationalities.”
Prototyping and testing with future visitors
Emma‘s team is following an inclusive methodology for designing the future exhibitions in Science Gateway.
“We are working with the visitors themselves. This is relatively new to our methodology at CERN. We are prototyping and testing exhibits with them. This work has been hampered by the COVID 19 pandemic, so is mostly online so far, but we are planning to go into schools later this year and test our ideas.”
To reach new visitors and ensure the content of the new exhibitions is engaging and relevant, it is important to find schools who do not already have connections to CERN.
“We looked for schools in the local area who had never thought of visiting CERN before. Our first study was on the logistics issues facing primary schools in a trip to CERN. What facilities are needed? What practical requirements do you need to keep in mind for such visitors? We also asked what they expected from a visit to CERN and what the barriers were to them coming, if any.
Perhaps predictably, we discovered we would have some challenging barriers to overcome as primary teachers often perceived CERN’s work as inaccessible. However, there was considerable interest in discovering our ideas for hands-on experimentation and the scientific method often formed part of the curriculum for primary, which is very positive. Many of the teachers expressed an interest in working with us as we move forward and involving their classes to help us develop accessible content.”
Emma has always been a strong advocate for diversity and has conducted many diversity-related initiatives to help advance awareness at CERN and beyond. Her team is today connected with the University of Geneva on how to make exhibitions more accessible to blind and visually impaired visitors. One doctoral student at Geneva University will spend part of her doctoral studies working with Emma’s team on this for Science Gateway.
This is another example of multi-disciplinary collaboration reaching out beyond CERN and an area where Emma hopes there will be a wider impact.
Exhibition and educational content in CERN Science Gateway
The labs and the exhibitions in Science Gateway will be complementary spaces, telling aspects of the same stories in different ways. Emma’s team is working closely with the Science Gateway Education team to offer visitors a coherent overall experience.
The lab space will propose an out of school learning experience. Children will be allowed to experiment in a real lab environment under guided supervision. Exhibitions will have a more permanent infrastructure with facilitators present on the floor to guide visitors in some activities in addition to the many opportunities for unguided exploration. In addition, there will be regular demonstrations where visitors can also take part and interact with equipment. For both open and guided exploration, Emma’s team is working to develop immersive scenography, which will allow visitors to experiment in a variety of realistic and impressive CERN environments.
Emma explains further: “A good exhibition has rhythm and takes visitors on a journey with exciting moments that are strong in emotion but also with breathing spaces for contemplation and rest. It is important to vary the experiences and reinforce key topics through a variety of interactions.”
When I ask Emma, who has visited so many science centres and museums in the world, which she thinks is unique in its approach, the answer comes immediately, “What excites me most are exhibitions that bring together elements that are not often brought together, to make something that is surprising and effective both emotionally and intellectually.
Science Gateway has plenty of ingredients to make for an interesting and unique mix – the authenticity of the site – we are at the place where science is happening, the artistic element - working with scenographers from the world of theatre and with artists. We will be embedding hands-on experimentation and educational content inside fully immersive environments. We want to create exhibitions that are both authentic and unique!”
Too many ideas
With such widespread collaboration on the development of the exhibitions, Emma and her team are now meeting a difficult challenge: There are too many ideas for exhibits and stories to tell, too many proposals of wonderful objects to include in the exhibitions.
“Having too many ideas is a nice situation to be in, but it is really hard to drop things. Also, if we pack in too much content and use all of our ideas, visitors will be overwhelmed and think “it is not for me ….” So choices have to be made.”
In our CERN Alumni Relations team, we have seen how important it is for our audience to come back to CERN physically and be on the site again. I ask Emma how important it is for the science exhibitions that she is working on, that they should be on the CERN site. In other words, would the same exhibition in a remote place have the same impact?
Emma answers, “There has been research conducted on exactly that question. There was an article in the Le Monde a few years ago on the rise of scientific tourism and the attraction of going to the place where the science is happening. Being at the actual place where the Higgs Boson was discovered is not the same as discovering the subject in a museum elsewhere. Authenticity is hugely important to visitors.”
The quest for authenticity is one of the reasons why CERN’s object heritage collection is so popular with museums. She gives the example of the London Science Museum’s successful “Collider” travelling exhibition that brought CERN to 750’000 visitors around the world with many objects loaned by CERN, the inclusion of CERN interviews in realistic audio-visual and even going as far as recreating CERN environments through the scenography - experiments, accelerators and even some very familiar corridors and offices!
An insight into the CERN Science Gateway exhibitions
I am tempted to close my eyes and let Emma take me through the three exhibitions of CERN Science Gateway, across three of the five new buildings in the iconic complex.
“All three exhibitions will place the visitor at the centre of the story. We are made of the same fundamental ingredients as everything we see around us today. And these particles originated 13.8 billion years ago in the Big Bang. This is our story: the particles in our bodies have been on the same voyage through the universe that CERN seeks to understand.”
“Discover CERN” is the first exhibition area, located in one of the suspended tunnels either side of Route de Meyrin. The team designed this exhibition based on their experience with Microcosm, exploring CERN behind the scenes. Visitors will be able to interact with many hands-on experiments from the technologies of accelerators to the functioning of experiments and applications beyond CERN. There will be plenty of objects and even a real proton accelerator allowing research to take place live on the exhibition floor.
The second exhibition, entitled “Our Universe”, will transport visitors across 13.8 billion years of universe, back to the Big Bang. Along the way, they can interact with experiments that show how we know what we know about the universe and discover research underway at CERN. A second part to the exhibition will be entitled “Exploring the Unknown” and this will be arts-led. Specially commissioned art works will be used to introduce key themes of research – the void, space and time, the invisible.
The third exhibition, Quantum World is the most novel and the one where Emma feels they are really trying to do something totally new. “We want to shrink our visitors down to the scale of particles and, using technology such as tracking devices, let them experience quantum effects directly. The first ideas for this simulated immersive experience were born out of discussions with scientists at CERN who wondered why, when communicating about particles to children, the impression is often given of solid building blocks… when the reality is far more ephemeral, extraordinary and potentially far more inspiring.”
After listening to Emma’s enthusiastic story of collaboration on the development of the exhibitions and given the importance that her team places on diversity and openness, I ask her how the CERN Science Gateway could involve CERN alumni.
“We would be very happy to share our plans for the exhibitions with alumni working in science communication and interested in further developing our ideas or applying them elsewhere, whether they work in education, science centres, science festivals or another related area. Indeed, if there is any interest in co-development of exhibits, please do get in touch with email@example.com.
In addition, the fundraising campaign is not yet concluded and we encourage anyone who would like to participate to get in touch with the CERN Partnerships & Fundraising unit to discuss the ways in which they could help at firstname.lastname@example.org”
“And don’t forget, “adds Emma, “exhibitions evolve - we are constantly improving and developing, so the opportunities for collaboration don’t end in 2022. In addition, the Globe building will be used to host temporary exhibitions and we will programme exhibitions there linking to events in the life of CERN, so there may be opportunities for alumni to connect there too.”
Following a very thorough tendering process, the design of the three exhibitions has been awarded to three different companies. Emma’s team is currently working with them towards implementation. All from home, because of the still ongoing COVID-related constraints.
Thank you very much Emma for sharing your vision of the Science Gateway and other CERN exhibitions content and the open collaborative process that your team has consistently applied for their development.
No doubt that this will contribute strongly to making the CERN Science Gateway a truly unique place in a more science-savvy world!
Author: Laure Esteveny, CERN
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