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National Building Museum’s New Augmented Reality Exhibit Takes Visitors To Notre Dame Cathedral

National Building Museum’s New Augmented Reality Exhibit Takes Visitors To Notre Dame Cathedral

Though it’s in downtown D.C., the National Building Museum hopes to take visitors to Paris this summer — the Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral, to be exact.

Using “HistoPads,” — augmented reality tablets created by French startup Histovery — and a sprinkling of imagination, guests can look overhead at an audience of historic figures like Bishop Maurice de Sully with the cathedral as a backdrop, find hidden treasure in its stained glass windows, and peer into a 3D model of the coronation of Napoleon.

Notre-Dame de Paris: The Augmented Exhibition” opens today, April 15, exactly three years after the iconic cathedral went up in flames and suffered devastating damage in just a matter of hours. The cause of the fire is still being investigated.

The exhibit is making its North American debut in D.C. and will be on view through Sept. 26.

About a third of the displays are dedicated to the present restoration project, including the professionals involved, the updated design, and what the future cathedral might look like. But much of the exhibit, and perhaps its most interesting sections, send visitors into centuries past. Histovery’s technology has been used to recreate D-Day at Ohio’s National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, and its team of designers and historians plan to use it to immerse viewers in iconic settings around the world, such as the Palace of Versailles.

The Notre Dame exhibit isn’t particularly huge — it takes up just over one hall of space on the second floor of the spacious museum — but that’s easy to forget while holding the tablet, turning full circle, and seeing the entire square in front of the 12th-century Gothic cathedral. The exhibition features 21 separate interactive experiences (10 historic and 11 current models of the cathedral’s architecture), and information from seven experts working on the restoration, all of which can be read or heard in 11 different languages.

A guest uses the HistoPad to experience the AR technology of the National Building Museum’s new exhibit on Notre Dame.Elliot Williams / DCist/WAMU
The technology of the National Building Museum’s new exhibit on Notre Dame doesn’t only show the building, but also historical scenes.Elliot Williams / DCist/WAMU
This is the first time the National Building Museum has used a technological interface like this in one of its exhibits.Elliot Williams / DCist/WAMU
The tablets also show additional information on what the user is viewing. Elliot Williams / DCist/WAMU
Histovery’s head of business development, Raphael Marchou, demonstrates the HistoPad technology.Elliot Williams / DCist/WAMU
A recreation of one of the gargoyles at Notre-Dame de Paris.Elliot Williams / DCist/WAMU

The exhibit is the latest in a series of splashy summer programs the museum has put on for much of the past decade, which included a giant ball pit, multi-story hive and an indoor green lawn, in addition to a beer garden and lounge area on its actual lawn. Last year amid the pandemic, the museum rolled out a series of smaller installations instead.

Aileen Fuchs, who’s been the National Building Museum’s president and executive director since 2021, says the museum staff began planning for Notre Dame shortly after she took the role a year ago. It’s the first time the National Building Museum is incorporating this type of technology into one of its exhibits.

“This exhibition offers a totally new way through time and space, using technology, to really bring you into the world of one of the most iconic structures in the world,” Fuchs tells DCist. “To use technology is a great next step and next level for us, and we think it’s a really powerful tool to convey the importance of these structures to our humanity.”

“More than half of the donations made to rebuild Notre-Dame de Paris were made by [people in] the U.S.,” Raphael Marchou, Histovery’s head of business development, said at a preview of the exhibit Thursday. “So it’s important for us that we see the special link between the United States and Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral.”

In fact, in the immediate aftermath of the blaze, Americans donated more than anyone to the restoration project. Meanwhile, the speed at which French billionaires rushed to pledge millions to the effort — and the amounts they pledged — raised plenty of eyebrows around the globe. One of those wealthy families, L’Oreal’s Bettencourt Meyers family, pledged 200 million euros ($226 million) to Notre Dame. L’Oreal is the sponsor of the National Building Museum exhibit.

The partnership allowed the Notre Dame activation be included in the museum’s base $10 general admission charge to view exhibits, according to organizers. (The museum’s dramatic, Renaissance Revival style Great Hall is open to the public free of charge.)

“It’s important to us to make the power of design and architecture really palpable and experiential for more more people,” Fuchs says. “Tomorrow, I’ll be bringing my 6-year-olds and my 76-year-old parents [to the exhibit], and I know that they’re all going to love something about it. And that’s really cool.”

Notre-Dame de Paris: The Augmented Exhibition, April 15 – May 31: Friday – Monday 11 a.m. – 4 p.m.; June 1 – Sept. 26: Thursday – Monday 11 a.m. – 4 p.m.; $10 general admission, $7 youth, students, and seniors. National Building Museum, 401 F Street NW.

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