Visitors to a new exhibition in Washington are transported halfway around the world to Jerusalem's historic Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which many Christians believe is the site of Jesus' burial and resurrection.
The virtual tour is a 3-D immersive film and is a highlight of "Tomb of Christ," a three-gallery exhibition at the National Geographic Museum that examines the history, cultural impact and recent conservation of one of the world's most venerated sites. The film offers views from above the Edicule, the shrine that houses the tomb, and into the church's domed rotunda. Visitors witness the marble slab that protects what the faithful believe is the burial site.
"It's like walking into the pages of National Geographic magazine," said museum director Kathryn Keane. "It's an important part of the museum of the future, to feel like [you] are really immersed in a space."
Across town, the new Museum of the Bible opened in November with several attractions that also push the boundaries of museum exhibits, including an amusement-park ride called "Washington Revelations" that takes visitors on a virtual flight around the capital city. Other galleries use video and music to animate Bible stories in what museum officials describe as an immersive experience.
These in-gallery experiences represent a dramatic shift in museum exhibitions. Active and multisensory, they are supplementing the traditional exhibit case, the flat-screen movie reel and wall text. Rather than observe the story, visitors become a part of it.
"It's a new platform for storytelling," Keane said. "It allows us to try new things to capture the imagination of young people especially."
"Tomb of Christ" unfolds in a newly designed space in the 17th Street NW museum, part of the National Geographic Society complex. High-powered laser scans created precise renderings that were animated to create high-resolution lifelike images.
The new space will be able to show 2-D and 3-D films, 360-degree footage and other formats being used by National Geographic's photographers, Keane said. Future immersive experiences could be deep dives along a coral reef or a 360-degree view from the summit of Mount Everest.
"We are trying to take advantage of the new visualization technologies," Keane said, noting that her museum and others are still learning how to adapt new technology to their galleries.
After the 3-D film in the "Tomb of Christ" exhibit, visitors enter a gallery where traditional museum displays unpack the story behind the movie. Details of the year-long conservation effort — led by scientists from the National Technical University of Athens and documented by National Geographic staff — are explained. Maps and images lay out the evolution of the church over the centuries, and before and after images of its artwork are on view. At the end of the gallery, individual virtual-reality headsets provide visitors with the opportunity to explore the space on their own.
At the Museum of the Bible, the simulated aerial ride was created by DyMoRides, a company that designs "multimedia, multisensory motion-based attractions," according to its website. Three years ago, museum president Cary Summers approached DyMoRides chief executive David Vatcher about showing the connection between the Bible and the buildings of Washington. The six-minute aerial tour flies over the buildings and into their domed interiors, blending history, religion and thrills.
Vatcher described the digital ride as "photo-realistic CGI." His team took 30,000 photographs that became the foundation for the tour. "We had 20 locations and 25 texts, and we pared that down to 12 locations and 15 texts," he said. "And we're just touching the tip of the iceberg."
These experiences may be cutting-edge now, but they will soon be the norm, Summers said.
"People are wanting to be engaged," he said. "The idea was not to create a separate theater, like an Imax, but to make it part of the experience on that floor."
The Museum of the Bible has several other high-tech experiences designed to engage guests in new ways. On the third floor, for example, there's an immersive experience of the Old Testament that takes visitors through rooms featuring surround sound and video animating the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and Noah's ark.
"It's a different form of theater," Summers said. "Sometimes the academic world has a tendency to over-explain things. This was designed not to do that."