The National Building Museum’s new exhibit, “Notre-Dame de Paris: the Augmented Exhibition” makes visitors feel like they’re actually at Notre Dame. Designed and produced by a French company called Histovery, guests take iPad-looking devices called Histopads around the exhibit, which provide 360-degree augmented reality views of Notre Dame throughout the different centuries it’s been built and maintained. The exhibit is created so visitors bounce through time, starting in 2021, then moving to the 1100s, then to many different years in between, chronicling the building’s proposal, construction, cultural significance, and ultimately its reconstruction after the electrical fire in 2019.
“It’s the closest thing to actually being there,” Cathy Frankel, Vice President for Exhibitions and Collections says. “It’s different from watching something in an IMAX theater. You have some agency moving as you move through the space, the same that you’d have if you were there.”
If spectators were to peek into the exhibit, they’d see visitors standing all over a sparse space, holding the Histopads at all different angles, looking at the augmented reality of Notre Dame ceilings, floors, walls, construction sites, and outdoor common areas. Visitors can look at and interact with the details on screen — the designs on the stained-glass windows, the pattern on the floor, the wooden beams holding up the ceiling. They can click through different pieces of information, and even collect “treasures” for a scavenger hunt. While there are also gargoyle and statue replicas in person, the exhibit exists mostly on the Histopad.
The exhibit also allows visitors to learn some French and architectural history. They can learn how Notre Dame was a key site in religious uprisings, as well as how architects decided to build and design different parts of the whole structure. As it was built over literally centuries, there’s a lot for visitors to unpack.
“We’re about process,” Frankel says. “These buildings are living and breathing. They have different uses over time, they go back and forth. It’s not a straight path — reformation, more religion, less religion, other religions, and now it’s a tourist space, too.”
You can see the changes in the area surrounding Notre Dame as well — what used to be a neighborhood of Parisians transformed over time to a courtyard for tourists. Frankel kept touching on the idea that buildings morph, that they’re not as solid in idea or structure as we’d like to believe. She pointed out the National Cathedral, how it’s still under construction from the earthquake that hit D.C. about ten years ago. The same earthquake shook the National Building Museum, and she watched the columns sway from the impact.
“One day buildings are one way, and the next day they’re very different,” Frankel says.
Changes to city structure can be seen throughout the world — here in DC, a townhouse built in the 1800s might be topped with built-on modern-looking floor. People throughout different centuries will see buildings in different ways, just as designers for Notre Dame did.
As France works to restore Notre Dame, the National Building Museum gives us an opportunity to be part of that reclamation. Visitors can see the way modern builders pushed for the same construction methods as the original to restore the spire, and they can see the way the original design changed from one architect to the next.
And, Frankel hopes, they can start empowering visitors to think differently.
“Seeing something like this shows you possibilities,” she says. “There’s a preciousness to these old buildings. In some ways we need to step away from that — they are precious, but the world is changing, people are changing how they interact with buildings, technology is changing, and having these buildings change, too, is just a part of the life cycle.”
The Notre-Dame de Paris: the Augmented Exhibition is open until September 26, 2022. Bonus: Saku Saku Flakerie is selling out of the National Building Museum’s café! Learn about the Notre Dame and then grab a croissant on your way out.