PARIS — Notre-Dame might not yet be reopened, but people can now virtually visit the cathedral and plunge into its 850 years of history, thanks to an augmented exhibition that’s just been unveiled in the French capital.
“Notre-Dame de Paris,” a show sponsored by L’Oréal, is being held at the Collège des Bernardins in the city’s fifth district, from April 7 to July 17. The exhibit, designed and created by Histovery, is open to the public and free of charge.
People can circulate at will among the show’s 22 experiences that highlight key moments and facts about the 12th-century cathedral that was ravaged by a fire in April 2019. The building’s reconstruction, also sponsored by L’Oréal, remains ongoing.
Each visitor is given a HistoPad, an easy-to-use digital tablet, which adds new dimensions — figuratively and literally — to the elements on display.
“The project is to bring Notre-Dame to [people] who cannot come anymore, and to bring it in a new manner, which is the augmented visit,” explained Bruno de Sa Moreira, chief executive officer and a cofounder of Histovery.
For L’Oréal, the tie-in came naturally.
“The idea is not only to explain the nine centuries of history of the cathedral, but also explain how are we going to rebuild it? What are the skills, the materials [needed]? What’s the plan? Where are we in the plan?” he continued.
“As a century-old French enterprise, it seemed important to us to support the richness of French heritage, culture and history,” Jean-Paul Agon, chairman of L’Oréal’s board of directors, explained in a statement.
“Furthermore, this exhibition illustrates the very best of what technology can offer,” he continued. “More than a visit, it is an experience of incredible richness. As a world leader in beauty, it was natural to contribute to having this treasure of beauty made known to the greatest possible number of people”
The tablet technology, created by Histovery, allows people not only to travel virtually in time and space, but also to learn about history in an engaging, interactive way. Information is available in 11 languages.
“We offer an experience that anyone can do,” de Sa Moreira said.
People personalize their visit according to interests. With the tablet, one clicks on a “time portal,” a specific date on display that zaps them into another period. Go back to 2019, and it’s about reliving the raging fire. An interactive 3D model of the cathedral shows the various stages of the fateful day from different angles and at different times, starting at 7:30 p.m.
Who fought the fire and with what? With a couple of clicks, that information appears.
“We have a scientific committee behind us to make sure everything we are doing is accurate,” explained Edouard Lussan, director of production at Histovery.
It’s possible to find out how the new wooden roof is being constructed, and to see the soaring oak trees from which the wood is sourced. An image of the cathedral’s famous rose window is exhibited, and visitors can learn about each piece of its stained glass, as well as the significance every one imparts.
The exhibition’s floor is lined with carpet designed to resemble Notre-Dame’s actual floor plan, replete with its black-and-white marble design.
A visit to 15th-century Île de la Cité, to see Notre-Dame’s urban ecosystem, is on offer.
There’s also a rendering of Jean-Louis David’s painting “Le Sacre de Napoléon,” depicting Napoleon’s coronation in Notre-Dame. With the tablet, a 360-degree visit is possible. Here, the virtual holds more reality than the real painting.
In the actual artwork, Napoleon’s mother is shown, proudly watching over her son’s crowning, but not so in the virtual iteration.
“The mother of Napoleon wasn’t there that day,” said Lussan, explaining she chose to be absent since Napoleon was in dispute with his brother. “So we didn’t put her in.”
Nor did Histovery include in Julius Caesar, who appears in David’s oeuvre, but — of course — could not have attended the event in real life, even if invited, because he was long dead. The last tweak made in the augmented version of the coronation is the reduction of the number of people shown vis-à-vis what’s in the painting, which has an inflated guest count.
“Physically, there is not enough room” for all those people, said Lussan, who studied the cathedral’s measurements. “Here, we are obliged to respect reality.”
Back to the present, viewers can take in four different parts of the cathedral under reconstruction.
“Notre-Dame de Paris” is an exhibit that first opened on a smaller scale at the Dubai Expo in fall 2021. Booking for a visit to it in Paris is recommended on notredameexpo.com.
The show will travel around the world during the next couple years, stopping in 12 cities before the cathedral reopens in 2024. Next up is Dresden, Germany, and this year “Notre-Dame de Paris” will open in Washington, D.C., New Orleans and Shanghai.
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