Making the invisible tangible
The Natural History Museum London (NHM) attracts around 5 million visitors each year. Unfortunately, not all of them are able to experience the beauty of the exhibition to the full extent. How the wonder and excitement we experience in new discoveries can be conveyed to those who cannot see is the challenge the “Make it visible” project faces: It is about building 3D models from existing datasets, printing them and using them for outreach – in the museum gallery, in schools, and public outreach programs. The data will be shared online and be available to everyone for free.
A 21st century dinosaur
“With this project, we will use our specimens to tell the stories about our collections and what they can tell us about the natural world – its past, present, and future – in a way that is accessible to everyone. We have the tools in our microscopes, micro-CT scanners and our methodologies and techniques to create 3D models at almost any scale”, says Kate Burton who is the responsible PhD student, working on this project.
Kate’s PhD involves doing research on using 3D imaging and printing from microscopic images to provide tactile representations for visually impaired people. She is working from automated macro routines developed by her supervisor and Head of Imaging and Analysis, Core Research Laboratories at the NHM, Dr. Alex Ball which allow the scanning electron microscope to capture a series of images which can be combined in software to generate a 3D mesh which can be 3D printed.
“The old way of making models of specimens was by producing a mold of the surface and then making a cast… but molding from original materials can be risky. If you get any material from the mold stuck anywhere on the surface you risk damage to the object, and you will potentially create an inaccurate replica”, said Ball.
A first visit by the Linden Lodge School for the Blind and visually impaired gave the opportunity for the pupils to have a tour of the museum behind the scenes. After the visit Dr. Alex Ball stated:
“It was a fascinating experience and it has given us some great insights into what we need to do going forwards. One thing we’ve seen immediately is that even with just nine children, we were completely overwhelmed! However response to some of the initial models was very positive and I think we have a good basis for development.”
What is still to come
The NHM plans to realize a series of open-source and freely available models for outreach and education, with associated case studies and teaching guides. Further, they want to develop open source guidelines for the design and production of 3D models for tactile outreach. Outreach opportunities within the lifetime of the project include the European Researchers Night, monthly NHM evening events with many different themes, NHM education resources, and an exhibition of tactile models for blind and partially sighted visitors within the NHM.
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The CASE (Collaborative Awards in Science and Engineering) studentship runs over a four-year period and is sponsored by ZEISS. The project is intended to feed through to the NHM public outreach activities, which include exhibitions, public and school events.
Being part of the Global Disability Innovation Hub, Kate is under University College London (UCL)’s Computer Sciences department and is being supervised by Dr Catherine Holloway (UCL), Dr Alex Ball (NHM), and Kenneth Png (ZEISS).