Last weekend we went to Collider at the Science Museum, the exhibition about CERN, the LHC and the discovery of the Higgs Boson. It is £10 for an adult, gets drastically undermined by its introductory film – and I don’t think I’ve ever been so disappointed coming out of a major exhibition.
Is this what mainstream science-based curation is like?
Collider opens with a video introduction given by scientists inside a mocked up lecture theatre. It’s not clear if these are real staff members, or actors playing caricature. The lead is a Yaffle-ish cliché, over-enunciating like a first time local newsreader, giving us a kind of smug, self-absorbed monologue about peripheral, mostly meaningless stuff. Of course, if he’s a real CERN scientist I feel bad for dissing his delivery – but this whole section is desperate distraction rather than rich content. It feels like a hundred idiots tweaked the brief. It feels like a multi-agency fluff – where directors and editors entirely fail to establish target audience, or decide what needs saying, or oversee their presenters to be simple and economic. Actually, it feels as if the sole aim is not to explain the Higgs Boson or LHC at all, rather to ram home the point that scientists are interesting people with human lives. This is Cowellian distopic nightmare writ large and shoved worryingly deep into our science and innovation establishment. Emotive (and silly) personal life nonsense and generic “Whoa! how excited we are!” replaces any sense of authority or faith in the richness of what these experiments may mean. One scientist tells us she’s doing it all for the memory of her humble schoolteacher father – and her script reads exactly like one of those moments on X Factor when they force-grow audience empathy. My gears grind. We’re in a presentation to relentlessly tell us how important it all is, rather than showing us.
Also, they use the phrase ‘money shot’. How on earth did that get past an editorial team? “Mum, what does ‘money shot’ mean?”
There’s one teasing footage moment of Peter Higgs and some actual findings – less than three seconds – before we skim away again, uneducated and unmoved. Far more time is spent on an inane, irritating joke involving Brian Cox, who appears faced away from us, while a scientist calls him ‘new boy’ and demands a cup of tea from “what was your name again?” “Brian”. Meaningful look to camera.
And then one scientist makes this joke, with the clear implication that we’re meant to laugh with him, not at him: “My wife says I spend more time with the LHC than her. But I can get another wife.”
Gobsmacking. The scriptwriting is criminal. Imagine how much more powerful this film could’ve been if someone (yeah perhaps Cox, since they’ve paid him to show up anyway!) did the following simple steps: (1) explained the problems they wanted to solve, questions they wanted to answer in the first place (which don’t get a mention). (2) showed us clips of CERN at work and play, (3) then clips of the announcement of the discovery of the Higgs and maybe some Peter Higgs himself (that can be our emotional kicker). Finally (4) summing up (as simply as possible) what it all means. It’s, er, not rocket science. By god, an actual history lesson.
Collider’s opening salvo is sexist, badly put together and dumb, its compromised cheapness rendered obvious by the huge screen size. It fatally injures the rest of the exhibition, which without it (and without the entry fee) might’ve been perhaps mostly harmless. We need to suspend skeptism and, fundamentally, maintain interest in these scientists’ achievement in order to enjoy being briefly and vaguely immersed in their world. Instead we walk through the rest of Collider filled with the exact wrong responses. Sarcastic and flaw-spotting. Disengaged. There’s a high quality surround CG film that takes us ‘inside’ the LHC itself, whooshing around us on a huge screen, yet with no components or processes adequately explained. There are further scientist narratives which are much better; talking about individual aspects of CERN’s work. There’s the evocative recreation of an office space and corridor, which – again – aims to entirely prioritise the humanising of the staff, ahead of any explanation of what they do.
If Collider is this weak, it has a further problem: how vastly rich the experience is to simply walk through the rest of the Science Museum to get there. If you’re remotely engaged with, or interested in science, or if you have children who are interested in science, please visit the Science Museum, it’s a wonderful, overwhelming place. I found more of Prof. Cox’s trademark “Wonder!” in a single projected display showing vividly how many satellites there really are orbiting Earth (answer: a shitload, looking at it makes Gravity a ton more plausible) than the entire Collider walk-through. So please don’t spend the extra money to visit Collider. If they’re contributing to the Cowellising of culture like this, we’ll only encourage them if it’s successful. Instead, we can find other ways to discover and share the joys of the LHC and the stories of the scientists who built and used it. An hour on Youtube will probably do the job vastly better.