Echte Karettschildrköte Eretmochelys imbricata und Gelber Segelflossendoktorfisch Zebrasoma flavescens | Foto: Senckenberg / Tränkner

14/07/2021 | Coral reefs are among the most species-rich and productive ecosystems on our planet. They cover less than 0.1 per cent of the ocean floor, but are home to one third of the animal life living in the sea. This diversity of organisms, the threats to this endangered habitat and ways to recover the ecosystem can be experienced in the fascinating new coral reef exhibition. In a representation of a coral reef habitat – six-metre wide, three-metre long and up to 3.3-metre high – around 3,000 individual animals, organisms and plants can be discovered.

Interviews with stakeholders from Europe and the Pacific region provide insights into their living environments and hwat role the reef ecosystem plays for them. The new permanent exhibition was created as part of the modular conversion project "New Senckenberg Museum Frankfurt" – in cooperation with the Leibniz Centre for Tropical Marine Research (ZMT) in Bremen and with Trier University of Applied Sciences.

Centrally located in the middle of the room is the main object of the exhibition – the habitat representation of an Indonesian coral reef by day and by night. Reef inhabitants can be seen interacting: from a hawksbill turtle with cleaner fish in a cleaning station, to sharks hunting or a coconut octopus in a shell. Symbiotic relationships are also shown, such as the tiny pygmy seahorse living in the coral fans of a soft coral, a gorgonian. A 1:1 model of a reef manta ray hovers next to the reef. It seems to be making a dive to catch plankton from the nutrient-rich water on the reef slope.


Professor Katrin Böhning-Gaese, responsible for Science and Society in the Senckenberg Directorate, calls the new exhibition space a "milestone in the development of the new Frankfurt museum". "The exhibition is not limited to the presentation of a habitat, but also addresses socio-political issues such as the endangerment of reefs, but also possible measures to save the precious ecosystem. The show enters into dialogue with female actors who live and work around coral reefs," Böhning-Gaese continues. At media stations, a fisherwoman and an underwater filmmaker as well as researchers and a conservationist from Tahiti have their say. "It was important to us to present this habitat in all its facets," adds museum director Dr Brigitte Franzen. "This includes the animal and human living worlds as two inseparable spheres. In the middle of Frankfurt we give our visitors the opportunity to discover an important and threatened part of the earth that is not so easily accessible – we invite them to literally 'dive' into our exhibition space, experience the coral reef ecosystem and understand the social-ecological connections," says Franzen. "The exhibition points the way to how we will understand and develop the New Museum."

Curator Philipe Havlik emphasises the different levels on which visitors can engage with the coral reef: "It is possible to enjoy the habitat display like a large hidden object picture and discover the many stories we tell with our objects. Those who like can deepen their knowledge and pick up our identification key or media guide and identify individual objects." The design of the space addresses these different levels: Benches invite visitors to spedn more time, a beamer projects facts about the ecosystem on the ceiling. At an interactive station visitors can test what happens to a reef when the water temperature increases, media stations enable encounters with reef actors. The design of the room and the accompanying digital media was developed by students of the "Intermediadesign" course at Trier University of Applied Sciences under the direction of Prof. Daniel Gilgen. "A great cooperation project," Gilgen praises the collaboration. "Here, our students have been given the special opportunity to put their ideas into practice with scientific support and to see them realised in a permanent exhibition at the Senckenberg Natural History Museum," he continues.

Zoological taxidermist Hildegard Enting and her team consisting of Kay Weber, Anna Frenkel, Sylva Scheer and Ute Raudonat, worked on the reef over a period of three years, building models, colouring and processing existing material. "For us, the close cooperation with our scientists was very important," explains Enting. "We asked the respective experts from Senckenberg and ZMT about the different species and critically discussed our models with them - sometimes down to the smallest detail, even though we know that these subtleties will hardly be seen in the exhibition later. We always wanted the objects to be realistic and also correct from the researchers' point of view," explains Enting.

Professor Angelika Brandt heads the Department of Marine Zoology at Senckenberg and points out that 2021 marks the start of the UN Decade of Ocean Exploration. "This is a perfect time to open our new reef exhibition now, after the Deep Sea and Marine Research exhibitions," Brandt explains. "This way we can raise awareness that the threat to coral reefs from climate change, ocean acidification, overfishing, habitat destruction, invasive species, and pollution is a global challenge. It is the task of marine sciences, in cooperation with politics, society and industry, to make the transformation to, for example, a cleaner and healthier ocean by 2030," says Brandt.

Dr Sebastian Ferse from the Leibniz Centre for Tropical Marine Research (ZMT) in Bremen is conducting research at the interface of ecosystems and humans, of ecology and social sciences. The ZMT is the scientific partner of the exhibition and advised on the creation of the new theme room. The interaction between humans and coral reefs is the focus of the exhibition and runs through all the accompanying media. Sebastian Ferse examines the threat to coral reefs and explores the possibilities of restoring them. In doing so, he sees a global and a local approach to action: "Globally, we must succeed in getting politicians to act more quickly and consistently on climate policy". On the ground, however, Ferse is also exploring the possibilities and opportunities of local reef management: "Local measures such as the establishment of marine protected areas on site, the protection of habitats such as seagrass meadows and mangroves in the vicinity of the reefs, but also fisheries management are enormously important - they make a tangible contribution to the resilience of coral reefs," says Ferse.

"Together with the seven other museums of the Leibniz Association, we increasingly see ourselves as places of dialogue that provide impetus for social transformation," explains Katrin Böhning-Gaese. "Senckenberg's focus is on the protection and promotion of biodiversity," she adds. "The Coral Reef exhibition makes an important contribution to these processes and it was significantly supported by the Leibniz Research Museums Action Plan," Brigitte Franzen concludes.