Don a mixed-reality viewer and you see the sun-dappled altar under a sweeping tower of windows. Turn around, and the cathedral’s pews march off into the distance, two by two.
Now, for the best part, look up. And for a few moments at the Museum of History & Industry’s new “Mont-Saint-Michel: Digital Perspectives on the Model” Microsoft AI-powered exhibit, you get that dizzy feeling you get when you stare straight up into lofty spaces.
It’s as close as you can come to looking up into the towering vaults of the stunning island-bound cathedral without visiting France.
“Once in a while, a new technology scenario feels a little bit like magic,” said Brad Smith, president of Microsoft. “And that’s the way this one felt to me. It’s like being transported across the Atlantic and onto an island next to Normandy because you really do feel surrounded by the cathedral. I’ve been in that cathedral on a few occasions as a tourist … and to be transported back into it was definitely a bit of a magical experience.”
The “Mont-Saint-Michel” exhibit — which runs through Jan. 26 — is an intriguing mix of old and new, blending 17th- and 21st-century technologies that were and are marvels of their time.
The first technology is the 1/144-scale model of the medieval monastery and UNESCO World Heritage Site that was built by resident Benedictine monks in the late 1600s and eventually gifted to King Louis XIV. The detail was so precise, the monarchy considered it a military secret and kept it hidden.
On loan from the Musée des Plans-Reliefs in Paris, the exhibit marks the first time the model has been in North America. It’s kept in a dim room to help preserve the delicate materials used to craft it.
The second layer of tech, powered by Microsoft artificial intelligence, kicks in when visitors don a HoloLens 2 device (must be 15 years or older). Much like a virtual-reality headset only with light-duty lenses more like sunglasses, the device allows viewers to see the room and the content projected onto the glasses at the same time.
A prompt leads visitors around the model, pointing out interesting features and comparing and contrasting changes made to the building over the centuries as pieces and parts were added, torn down or destroyed. And then it takes you inside the cathedral for a moment with a 360-degree representation of the real space.
The exhibit itself is fascinating, MOHAI Executive Director Leonard Garfield said. But as a man whose job it is to think about the future of museums, Garfield also finds it intriguing in a professional sense.
“What I’m so intrigued by is what if we could do that and take ourselves back to Seattle in the 1850s or to Microsoft in the 1980s when Bill Gates and Paul Allen were first inventing the future?,” Garfield asked. “I think those kinds of experiences will in fact be possible with HoloLens technology. So we’re just beginning to see how those applications can enhance museum experiences. And we have a lot to learn from this, and I think an awful lot of exciting development, a lot of which will be based here in Seattle.”
Microsoft developed the exhibit as part of its AI for Cultural Heritage program to preserve languages, landmarks and artifacts. Smith said Microsoft is considering undertaking a similar project in Greece.
“I think it’s also important not just for museums, but for countries and communities that want to share their heritage with the world more broadly,” Smith said. “So it makes perfect sense that we’re doing this with one of the single most important icons in all of France. But then it’s not surprising that we’re now exploring whether and how to do this with the monuments of ancient Greece. And you can imagine how it can bring to life not only the ruins of monuments that exist today, but then enabling people to experience what it was like to be in those buildings or cultural centers just after they were built and opened.”
“Mont-Saint-Michel: Digital Perspectives on the Model,” through Jan. 26, 2020. Museum of History & Industry, 860 Terry Ave. N., Seattle; free with museum admission; the HoloLens 2 experience is for those 15 and older and operates via timed entry (time slots are limited and may be reserved on-site); 206-324-1126, mohai.org