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Three years ago, Paris watched one of its beloved national treasures go up in flames. The blaze that ravaged the Notre-Dame cathedral collapsed a spire, destroyed most of the building’s roof and upper walls, melted the lead joints in its stained glass windows, and caused smoke damage to a number of paintings. Reconstruction of the UNESCO World Heritage site is slated for completion in 2024, but already, the Notre-Dame is enjoying a full-blown virtual restoration, set to be unveiled at the National Building Museum in Washington D.C.

What’s happening

Created by French startup Histovery, the AR experience at Notre-Dame de Paris: The Augmented Exhibition offers visitors a transportive 360-degree experience of the cathedral’s construction history. Image: Histovery

This week, Notre-Dame de Paris: The Augmented Exhibition launches at the National Building Museum, promising a 360-degree immersion into the centuries-spanning history of the cathedral. And how? With augmented reality (AR), of course.

At the onsite show, visitors will have access to a HistoPad™, a handheld tablet developed by exhibition partner Histovery, with which they can unlock a transportive and interactive AR experience. On the platform, they can scroll through a timeline of the cathedral’s history, and view 22 reconstructions of key events that have unfolded on the site — from the arrival of the Crown of Thorns in 1241 to the 1804 coronation of Napoleon to the addition of the Viollet-le-Duc spire in the 19th century. The 2019 fire also features, with visitors granted a rare view of the restoration team at work. Additionally, a self-guided virtual treasure hunt is included to encourage exploration among young visitors.

Notre-Dame de Paris: The Augmented Exhibition at National Building Museum

The experience on the HistoPad™ includes recreations of key events that played out on the site (above) and interactive games (below) to engage young visitors. Images: National Building Museum

Rounding off the multi-sensory offer is the exhibition’s physical setup, which includes immersive elements such as large photo panels, a vinyl recreation of the cathedral’s checkerboard floor, audio of its iconic tolling bells, and stained glass transfers of its signature windows.

Sponsored by L’Oreal and created in collaboration with the Public Institution in charge of the Notre-Dame’s conservation and restoration, Notre-Dame de Paris: The Augmented Exhibition is running simultaneously at the Collège des Bernadins in Paris, and in the next few years, will travel to other cities including New Orleans, Shanghai, and Dresden, Germany.

Why it matters

Notre-Dame de Paris: The Augmented Exhibition at National Building Museum

The exhibition demonstrates the crucial role interactive technologies can play in vivifying history for new and younger audiences. Image: National Building Museum

Innovative technology continues to prove itself when it comes to the preservation of cultural heritage. Here, AR is used not just to document and recreate for visitors a sweeping timeline of the Notre-Dame’s construction, but also, to record its ongoing physical restoration. The exhibition also further underscores the potential for such technologies to vivify history and historical artifacts — also seen in the National Gallery’s Virtual Veronese and Prado’s Museum’s The Essence of a Painting — making it freshly engaging for new and younger audiences.

Notre-Dame de Paris: The Augmented Exhibition also marks the first exhibition at the National Building Museum to feature interactive technology. As an onsite offering, it joins other shows in leveling up the exhibition experience to appeal to post-lockdown appetites for transportive in-person activities and in turn, stimulate museum visitorship.

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What the museum said

“We are thrilled to bring this premier exhibition to the United States, and believe it provides a new way to experience one of the world’s most iconic buildings. Visitors will experience first-hand how technology can contribute to our understanding of buildings. The unique and immersive virtual nature of the exhibition provides a window into this World Heritage site.” — Aileen Fuchs, President and Executive Director, National Building Museum

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CultureTech, Museums & Cultural Institutions