Touch and feel: tactile panels with Spotted Woodpecker, Mason Bee & Co.

Nadja Tata (MfN)

By Nadja Tata (MfN)
30.10.2020 | 4 minutes reading time

As of this fall, birds and insects can be experienced in the tactile exhibition “Bahnbrechende Natur” at Schöneberger Südgelände. The templates for the 3D graphics are objects from the collection of the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin.

Goldfinch, nightingale, spotted woodpecker and kestrel (photo: Nadja Tata, MfN)
Goldfinch, nightingale, spotted woodpecker and kestrel (photo: Nadja Tata, MfN)

When the Senate Department for the Environment, Transport and Climate Protection first contacted the Mediasphere For Nature in May 2019, the project planning for Berlin’s first barrier-free exhibition in nature had already been underway for over six months. The goal was to expand the nature conservation exhibition “Bahnbrechende Natur” in the nature park Schöneberger Südgelände by including inclusive, tactile panels that enable visually impaired and blind people to touch and feel typical animal species and elements of the former railway yard. In addition, the information should be made accessible through audio files and enriched with animal voices.

Since 1999, the Südgelände has been marked as a nature and landscape conservation area, offering a habitat for many animal and plant species with its mixture of old railroad relics and wilderness. Nightingale, spotted woodpecker, goldfinch and kestrel, wild bees, grasshoppers and various butterflies are at home here. There are numerous photos of these birds and insects on the internet but how can a tactile semi-relief be created out of these, or rather where do you get specific templates for the 3D graphics? With its rich treasure of historical and current collection objects, the Museum für Naturkunde offered the solution.

Overgrown railroad areas are perfect habitats for flora and fauna (photos: Nadja Tata, MfN)
Overgrown railroad areas are perfect habitats for flora and fauna (photos: Nadja Tata, MfN)

The Mediasphere For Nature team met with the senate’s project manager, Katrin Heinze, and the consultant for accessibility, Steffen Zimmermann, to discuss details of the requirements concerning the animals and their digitization options. At the same time, our collection keepers from the ornithology and entomology departments as well as our taxidermist set out to find suitable specimens, which are undamaged and show typical morphological characteristics of the respective species. An authentic body posture, a well recognizable beak as well as completely preserved feelers, wings and extremities of the insects were significant criteria. The various animals chosen by the senate administration came from the collection of the museum as well as, in the case of the nightingale, from the private collection of our taxidermist Robert Stein.

Templates for the tactile semi-reliefs (photos birds: Hwa Ja Götz, MfN; photo panel: Nadja Tata, MfN)
Templates for the tactile semi-reliefs (photos birds: Hwa Ja Götz, MfN; photo panel: Nadja Tata, MfN)

As options for the digitization we discussed 3D scans of the insects, CT scans of the birds or high-resolution 360°-photos of all artefacts, since many fine details, e.g. of the plumage, would be lost with a surface scan. In the end, the decision was made to use high-res photos, which the executing agency, Tactile Studio transformed into semi-reliefs. Contrasts, spacing and design elements of the exhibition panels were developed for a tactile experience and were optimized under the advice of Reiner Delgado of the German Federation of the Blind and Partially Sighted (DBSV).

A special challenge for the tactile realization was how to represent the stridulation (mechanical generation of sound) of the stripe-winged grasshopper, whose ascending and descending buzzing sound can be heard within a range of approximately 5 meters. The Mediasphere provided the contact to our locust expert, Dr. Jürgen Deckert, who explained how the male grasshopper rubs an edge with small pegs on the inside of his hind legs quickly up and down over a protruding edge on the upper side of his front wing. Transforming these delicate details into a tactile experience proved to be a tricky task.

Reiner Delgado from the DBSV and a visitor are testing the feel of the stripe-winged grasshopper’s stridulation (photos: Frank Sperling; Nadja Tata, MfN)
Reiner Delgado from the DBSV and a visitor are testing the feel of the stripe-winged grasshopper’s stridulation (photos: Frank Sperling; Nadja Tata, MfN)

Unfortunately, the corona pandemic crossed the original plans for the opening of the exhibition in early summer 2020, and visitors had to wait until September 29th, when Stefan Tidow, Berlin’s State Secretary for the Environment and Climate Protection, opened the exhibition extension. In addition to the 12 tactile panels, there is also a touchable life-size long-eared owl made of grey synthetic stone, which was created by the sculptor Stephan Hüsch for this purpose.

Background information about the area, the exhibition and its plant and animal heroes is not only explained on the panels in conventional black writing and braille, but also via audio files, that are accessible through a QR code on the panel leading to the website of the Berlin senate. The sounds of the birds and the grasshopper were provided by the animal sound archive of the Museum für Naturkunde.

Erklärungen in Schwarz- und Brailleschrift mit Audiodateien (Fotos: Nadja Tata, MfN)
Erklärungen in Schwarz- und Brailleschrift mit Audiodateien (Fotos: Nadja Tata, MfN)

The nature park Schöneberger Südgelände is located directly at the S-Bahn station Priesterweg and is open daily from 9 am until nightfall. “Bahnbrechende Natur” is a true inspiration for all those who want to create nature experiences with less barriers and in an inclusive way.