When a fire broke out at the Notre-Dame cathedral in 2019, it sparked a new idea: a traveling virtual-tour exhibit that could keep the public connected with the monument during reconstruction.
By using virtual- and augmented-reality tools, French startup Histovery is bringing this exhibit to life.
Video-game technologies are the key to enabling visitors to (re)discover the cathedral’s nine-century-old history, as well as a behind-the-scenes look at its restoration.
In the early evening of April 15, 2019, a thick cloud of smoke filled the Parisian sky. Notre-Dame de Paris, one of the world’s most iconic cathedrals—the same one that was witness to Napoleon’s coronation, as immortalized by the 18th-century painter Jacques-Louis David—was burning. On that catastrophic night, nine centuries of French history went up in flames as Paris’s beloved cathedral was mauled by fire.
The fire was caused by an accident in the cathedral’s attic, transforming the oak and lead spire designed by architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century into a torch. The heat caused it to bow down and then collapse, along with the rest of the roof.
More than 170 years before the tragedy occurred, Victor Hugo had penned a sort of premonition in his novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame: “All eyes were raised to the top of the church. They beheld there an extraordinary sight. On the crest of the highest gallery, higher than the central rose window, there was a great flame rising between the two towers with whirlwinds of sparks.”
Hundreds of years later, this terrible scene played out as Parisians watched 500 firefighters battle the blaze for hours. In the end, the towers were saved, but most of the roof was destroyed. The landmark was shuttered as the city vowed to rebuild.
The emotion evoked by the Notre-Dame fire spread far beyond the borders of France, with gestures of solidarity and donations from companies and individuals pouring in from all corners of the planet. In addition to loyal churchgoers, the monument welcomed more than 30,000 visitors per day before the fire. French President Emmanuel Macron made a solemn vow to the public that the cathedral would be rebuilt by the end of 2024.
An Augmented-Reality Exhibit Travels the World
In response to this tragic event, “Notre-Dame de Paris, the Experience” intends to revive the cathedral’s 900-year-old history. The experience, a virtual immersion in the history of the cathedral, is by Histovery, a French start-up specializing in delivering immersive and augmented-reality (AR) tours.
To date, the company brought the exhibit to nearly 20 museums and monuments in France and in Germany. Through exclusive sponsorship from The L’Oréal Group, the exhibit opened in the France Pavilion at the World’s Fair in Dubai and was on display at the Collège des Bernardins in Paris April–July 2022; it’s at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., April–September 2022. From there, it will travel to Dresden, Germany; New Orleans; and then to a dozen other cities in the next two years.
“Histovery offers a deep dive into the cathedral’s history and restoration,” says Bruno de Sa Moreira, company co-founder and CEO. “We aim to make Notre-Dame de Paris accessible, using augmented reality and interactivity in a way that’s in line with contemporary scientific knowledge.”
In practical terms, visitors begin the virtual tour using an interactive tablet called a HistoPad. With it, they can explore 3D historical reconstructions from all angles, select the level of visual detail, move virtual objects, open doors, and immerse themselves—getting lost in the otherwise inaccessible nooks and crannies of scenes from various time periods. As visitors stroll through the exhibit, they can scan terminals that serve as portals to other eras, allowing them to travel back in time to—and interact with—reenacted historical scenes.