The National Geographic Museum is offering a virtual tour to a Jerusalem shrine that almost beats the real thing. “When you go to Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, it’s so crowded,” says the museum’s Lexie de los Santos. “You are literally shoulder-to-shoulder with [the] many pilgrims that are trying to come through.” By contrast, the museum’s installation “Tomb of Christ: The Church of the Holy Sepulchre Experience” only allows a maximum of 35 people in at a time, a limit that allows visitors to “take it all in.”
Incorporating 3D video and virtual-reality components, the technologically advanced, “immersive VR3D” experience offers an altogether unprecedented “tour” of the site where Jesus of Nazareth is said to have been crucified, buried, and resurrected. “It is the single most important shrine for all of Christianity,” says curator Fredrik Hiebert. “And you really feel like you are there.”
Nothing about the installation was planned in advance. “This was really unexpected,” says Hiebert, a field archaeologist and curator at NatGeo whose “normal day job” is serving as an expert on Greek and Egyptian antiquities. Two years ago a Greek colleague informed Hiebert of a project “to renovate the shrine to the tomb of Jesus,” which he immediately seized on as a “not-to-be-missed opportunity.” Hiebert and colleagues observed the historic efforts of conservators from the National Technical University of Athens, who took roughly nine months “to scan the shrine, restore it, solidify it, and clean it,” using radar and lidar laser equipment. Hiebert trumpets the work as advanced “21st-century architectural conservation,” accomplished without needing to close the church and “without ever digging anything.”
The use of other state-of-the-art technologies, including thermographics and “optically stimulated luminescence,” gave conservators a “fire hydrant of information” that also helped them go beyond surface-level restoration — uncovering, for example, “inscriptions…and frescoes underneath the soot.” Tomb of Christ documents their work and technological advances, and also exhibits artifacts from the site. Yet it’s the interactive video and theatrical elements that take center stage. They’re also presented as key to future projects at the museum, enabling it to “transport the reader to someplace else,” says de los Santos.
“This is what I think really inspired National Geographic to invest in this. Where in the world do you want to go? To the top of Everest? Down to the Titanic?” says Hiebert. “Next February, I plan to flip a switch. Jesus will be gone and Nefertiti will be in there.”
Tomb of Christ is on view through Jan. 2, 2019, at the National Geographic Museum, 1145 17th St. NW. Timed-entry tickets are $15. Call 202-857-7588 or visit ngmuseum.org.