by Jincy IypeMay 02, 2023
For some, it was the fear of losing the greatest example of Gothic architecture. For some, it threatened the unmovable foundations of their religion, and instigated emotions of a world end. But one thing that was mutual for everyone across the globe was the sense of anguish as the world watched the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris burn into flames. Though two years have passed since the tragic accident, Parisians may still remember where they were or what they were doing on April 15, 2019, when they heard the news of the Notre-Dame fire. It was one of those incidents which restored the deep-rooted relationship that the world has with architecture. But soon after, the feeling of loss, regret, and grief subsided and the design world rushed to present notions of rebuilding the roof that was lost in the fire. We witnessed proposals for the reconstruction of the roof which varied from extremely eccentric to much innovative and contemporary. Amidst the heap of ideas, France decided to recreate the original spire as designed by the French architect, Eugene Viollet-le-Duc. The reconstruction efforts started in 2020 with the aim to see its final light before the city hosts the 2024 Summer Olympics.
In between the whirlwind of discussions, arguments and decisions, people around the world regretted not having seen Notre-Dame earlier. Scenes from movies kept circulating online with many people reminiscing the dialogue "that Notre-Dame will be gone one day" and writers took the opportunity to relate the incident to the impermanence of human lives and encircled phrases of 'one day it may be there and the next, it may not'. While the authorities buckled up to restore the landmark and the world started the countdown to the next time that the cathedral will open its doors again, French start-up Histovery addressed the curiosity of the global audience by envisioning an augmented reality exhibition that intends to bring people even more closer to the glorious monument. Designed and produced by Histovery in a two-year time frame, the exhibition traces the 850-year history of the cathedral and its ongoing tradition. Debuted at the France Pavilion at the Dubai World Expo last year, Notre-Dame de Paris: The Augmented Exhibition is on view at the National Building Museum in Washington DC. The exhibition was unveiled for the North American subcontinent on the third anniversary of the tragic accident by Histovery in collaboration with the Public Institution in charge of the conservation and restoration of Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral, and with the sponsorship of L’Oréal. "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," stated the President and Executive Director of the National Building Museum, Aileen Fuchs.
The HistoPad, an augmented reality touch-screen tablet, will act as a time capsule for the visitors. Set in sequences, the exhibition opens on the dramatic fire of 2019 and trails back in time to the year 1160. Across the exhibition space, the immersive physical setting of the different elements from Notre-Dame de Paris is displayed. Vinyl replicas of the cathedral's flooring, stained-glass transfers on the Museum's historic windows, audio of Notre-Dame's organs and tolling bells, as well as a projection of the cathedral’s famed rose window that miraculously survived the fire, complete the multi-sensory experience. Large photo panels and 3D installations serve as visual cues for Histopad’s immersive explorations. Along with the interactive construction of the cathedral at different phases of time, the animated memories of coronations and detailed illustrations of architectural ornamentation, the exhibition brings along treasure hunt games for its younger enthusiasts. With something for everyone, the showcase portrays the story of Notre-Dame de Paris like never before.
STIR speaks with the CEO of Histovery, Bruno de Sa Moreira, and the Vice President for Exhibitions and Collections at the National Building Museum, Cathy Frankel, about the exhibition, the potential of augmented reality, and the initiatives of the museum.
STIR: Notre-Dame de Paris: the Augmented Exhibition was part of the France Pavilion at Dubai Expo. What initiated the idea of bringing it to North America and creating an augmented reality experience inside a museum?
Bruno de Sa Moreira: Shortly after the 2019 tragic fire, with the closing of the cathedral doors for its reconstruction work, we had the idea of a HistoPad temporary exhibition that could travel around the world to bring Notre-Dame to its beloveds and answer the worldwide emotion. For the past eight years, Histovery has been inventing “augmented visit experiences” in museums with its HistoPad, demonstrating its ability to engage every audience in an incredible journey through history, art, and culture, in a fun and attractive manner accessible to all, thanks to augmented reality, beautiful graphics, scientific expertise, and interactive features. The idea became to tell the entire Notre-Dame de Paris story, nine centuries-long, from its edification in the Middle-ages through its ongoing reconstruction today.
We started with a first presentation for the opening of the Dubai World Expo in October 2021, at the France Pavilion. This was a limited 1500 sqft exhibit with six immersive time-travelling experiences. Immediately the response from the worldwide audience in Dubai was overwhelming, with 150,000 visitors in 30 days together with an incredible media coverage. We immediately thought about coming to the USA, and because it is a cultural exhibition of a new kind, we thought of bringing it to the National Building Museum in Washington DC, which was the perfect match for the American audience. Today we are showing for the first time in the USA the complete Augmented Exhibition, offering 21 experiences in a new gallery of over 3500 sqft here at the NBM, simultaneously with its twin augmented exhibition in Paris.
STIR: The exhibition is curated in multiple sequences. How long did it take to bring together the documentation, visualisation, and the overall setting?
Bruno: The entire project took two years of production efforts. We have had to reconstruct 21 scenes at different moments in time, from the 13th century onwards. The work consisted of the design and graphic recreation of many different scenes, including hundreds of decors, thousands of characters, tens of thousands of objects, demanding many researches and scientific curation efforts. Everything has been validated by the Scientific Committee of the project, gathering best experts of the different historical periods, as well as experts of the monument, with the collaboration of the French public body in charge of the cathedral restoration.
STIR: What according to you was the most challenging or exciting part about this exhibition?
Bruno: For this project in particular, we have been pushing HistoPad experience to a new high of interactivity, with real time 3D scenes including a large number of animated characters, giving more life and offering spectacular reconstructions to the visitors. Besides, the international tour of the Augmented Exhibition, thanks to the great support of L’Oreal, coming to 12 cities around the world before the re-opening of the Notre-Dame in 2024, is a very innovative international exhibition concept that is already proving to match the expectations from the 21st century visitors around the globe. Speaking up to 15 languages, it is capable to be simultaneously in several different locations with the same quality of experience for all.
STIR: How do you think the vision of Histovery and the potential of Histopad contribute to creating a new era of how history and architecture is exhibited in museums?
Bruno: HistoPad means interactivity, bringing the same universal content to all but in a personalised manner for each one – for instance, here the 850 years of Notre-Dame de Paris history is a journey that can happen in as many ways as there are visitors. Each one will go his own way, at his own rhythm, picking details following his own centers of interests. HistoPad satisfies all ages, and make it fun to learn. It is not only pedagogical for all, it is also the best way for the museum to engage its visitors in its collections, and for the monuments to engage its visitors in its walls. HistoPad also means immersivity: the cultural journey can be spectacular, thus increasing each one's natural curiosity for any subject. Today Histovery operates about 20 HistoPad with its partners, museums and monuments, in France and abroad, welcoming over two millions visitors per year, thus proving its ability to serve cultural visits of the future.
STIR: The National Building Museum, we suppose, is in the process of educating people more about 'building' museums. How is Notre-Dame de Paris: the Augmented Exhibition contributing to this journey?
Cathy Frankel: The National Building Museum presents exhibitions that are not just about how buildings look, they are about the process of building, how people interact with the buildings, what the buildings represent, and how they change over time. Notre-Dame is the perfect example of an awe-inspiring, iconic building that has for generations looked and has been perceived in the same way. Generally, people are less familiar with its history – how it was built and how it changed over time. The devastating fire in 2019 provided an opportunity to look at the structure differently now that it is being rebuilt. We hope that all of our visitors who engage with all of our exhibitions, leave the museum more curious about the built world and their role in it.
STIR: With an exhilarating response from the visitors, can we expect NBM to host more exhibitions revolving around technology-driven concepts such as augmented reality?
Cathy: This is the first exhibition that we have done that uses augmented reality and it has been a thrilling success. We have always educated our visitors about important buildings and environments but have never been able to create an experience where one can fully understand a building by going inside of it, seeing animations about how it was constructed, and get a 360-degree view of the surroundings. The technology in this exhibition does all of those things beautifully, which is why our visitors are spending so much time in the exhibition, and leave feeling like they truly understand Notre-Dame, its history, and its future. The museum is looking forward to investigating how augmented reality could be used for future exhibitions that are in the works.
Notre-Dame de Paris: The Augmented Exhibition is on display at the National Building Museum till September 26, 2022.
The article has been put together by Zohra Khan (Senior Features Writer, STIR) and Sunena V Maju (Intern, STIR)