Mont-Saint-Michel: The historic 3D model comes to life

The famed Mont-Saint-Michel relief map—a 17th century icon of French innovation, history, and culture—comes to life as an immersive mixed reality experience.

For centuries, technology has been influencing the way people engage with the world and shape the course of history. In 17th and 18th-century France, large-scale 3D maps—painstakingly built by hand down to the most intricate details—were the most advanced mapping technology of their time. They were considered such valuable strategic tools that leaders like Napoleon and King Louis XIV considered them military secrets and hid them from public view.

The Musee des Plans-Reliefs in Paris is home to more than 100 of these historic relief maps that have withstood the test of time. But the star of the collection is the model of Mont-Saint-Michel—a rocky headland off the Normandy coast with a Benedictine abbey that’s an architectural marvel in its own right—presented by monks to Louis XIV in 1709.

Fast-forward 300 years, and a HoloLens experience is now bringing these technological feats to life for a new generation in France. And for the first time ever, the model travelled outside of France to the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) in Seattle, where it was on display for the public.

To create the HoloLens experience, Microsoft partnered with innovative French technology companies. Iconem, which specializes in digitizing cultural heritage sites in 3D, recreated the Mont-Saint-Michel model and site using a process where artificial intelligence process hundreds of thousands of photos—taken by drones and cameras on the ground—to render models that are so precise, they look fully photo-realistic. HoloForge Interactive then used these 3D renderings to build the mixed reality experience that takes viewers back in time.

Curators and museum staff "unbox" the relief map of Mont-Saint-Michel and set it up for exhibition at MOHAI in Seattle. This is the first time the French artifact has traveled to North America.

In bringing Mont-Saint-Michel to life in holographic form, they unlocked a more vital kind of storytelling for museums and cultural institutions. It helps them better engage tech-savvy audiences while preserving and revitalizing cultural heritage for new generations—a driving force behind Microsoft AI for Cultural Heritage.

A woman dressed in black wears headphones and uses a touchscreen to explore an exhibit on the 3D model of Mont Saint Michel, on display behind arched windows in a room in front of her.

HoloForge Interactive took 3D renderings of Mont-Saint-Michel and the historic model to create the HoloLens experience.

Guests are taken on a 15- to 20-minute experience where they travel back in time and the Mont-Saint-Michel model comes to life.

The MOHAI experience uses the HoloLens 2 to immerse visitors in the wonder and artistry of the model and Mont-Saint-Michel itself.

The hope is that mixed reality and AI will better engage tech-savvy audiences while preserving and revitalizing cultural heritage for new generations.

"This is the beginning of a new era for cultural mediation, and we need to make it accessible to everyone: museums, mediators and visitors." - Antoine Bezborodko, Executive Producer, HoloForge Interactive

Tech can help preserve our cultural heritage and celebrate the rich tapestry of our world. I’m so excited that we are bringing a piece of French history from the Musée des Plans-Reliefs in Paris to MOHAI in Seattle to be experienced like never before through AI and HoloLens 2.

Brad Smith, President of Microsoft

Iconem founder Yves Ubelmann, whose grandfather was an architect who worked on restoring Mont-Saint-Michel, believes this kind of preservation is critical to helping future generations experience and connect with important pieces of our history and heritage. 

And for MOHAI, it’s an exciting opportunity to bring this “crown jewel” of the royal collection to modern audiences. “We’re honored to share the unique experience born of innovations both past and present,” says MOHAI’s Executive Director, Leonard Garfield.

Through this partnership, Microsoft hopes to build a bridge between past, present, and future—and along the way, use digital technology to preserve heritage, empower museums, and make cultural experiences accessible to all.

With sincerest thanks to our partners

“The Mont Saint-Michel: Digital perspectives on the model” was on public exhibition at The Musée des Plans-Reliefs in Paris in 2019 and at the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle in 2020.