The re-making of Notre Dame: An extraordinary achievement by any measure

Country Life's cultural columnist Athena on the astonishing progress being made in the rebuilding of Notre-Dame de Paris — and how an exhibition in London shows what is being done.

It feels a long time since April 15, 2019, when the world stopped in horror to watch Notre Dame in Paris being consumed by fire. The roofless shell of the cathedral was still smouldering when President Macron stated his determination to restore the building within five years. Athena was conflicted by this bold announcement. On the one hand, she was hugely impressed by its confidence and the fact that it was immediately seconded by generous offers of money and support from France and beyond. To date, the whole project is reported to have cost €846 million. There again, she thought, what was the point in making promises about the restoration before the full extent of the damage was properly understood? And might a politically imposed timetable make for poor decision making? 

All this came freshly to mind this week when Athena attended the opening of ‘Notre-Dame de Paris, the Augmented Exhibition’. It has been installed in the great octagonal chapter house of Westminster Abbey, an arrangement that quite literally places the story of one Gothic masterpiece within another.

An exhibit at the immersive exhibition ‘Notre Dame de Paris, The Augmented Exhibition’, inside Westminster Abbey. (Photo by Adrian DENNIS / AFP / Getty)

This ‘immersive’ exhibition — produced by Histovery in collaboration with Rebuilding Notre-Dame and with the support of L’Oréal Groupe — was conceived as a means of honouring this celebrated cathedral across the world during its enforced closure. By the end of this year, it will have travelled to more than a dozen cities across four continents. It runs at Westminster Abbey until June 1 and entry is included in the price of admission, with timed booking slots available. 

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The exhibition tells the history of the building and its fabric in a series of 20 themed panels that radiate from around the central column of the interior. This layout is cleverly complemented by a carpet printed with a huge image of the medieval glass in one of Notre Dame’s great rose windows that extends across the 13th-century tiled floor. The panels have been boldly designed with large graphics and their content can be explored with the help of a portable, touchscreen tablet that is issued to every visitor. This offers visual reconstructions, video and other information. 

The fire at Notre Dame in 2019. Photo: Getty

Athena always enjoys the experience of using new technology in the context of exhibitions, but would confess that she usually finds it more entertaining than informative. At a fundamental level, that’s because such material is a creation in its own right and lacks the authenticity of what it aims to explore. In this case, however, there is not much alternative to visiting Notre Dame virtually. Added to which, the section of the exhibition on the fabric drove home the extraordinary complexity and scale of the ongoing restoration.  

Despite Athena’s reservations in 2019, the reopening date is now set: December 8, 2024, and the Pope will be invited. Work will, in fact, continue until 2028, but, by any measure, this is an extraordinary achievement.