UA Art History Professor Wins Grant to Make a Virtual Reality Gothic Cathedral for Alabama Middle-Schoolers

Jennifer Feltman at Reims Cathedral, Last Judgment Portal, north transept façade, ca. 1226-40 with later restorations.
Dr. Jennifer Feltman at Reims Cathedral

The humanities are more than a set of subjects like history, literature and philosophy; they are also a way of solving urgent problems. When they step beyond the walls of a university, the humanities can enrich public life in unique and vital ways. UA assistant professor of art history Dr. Jennifer Feltman was awarded a 2020-21 Whiting Foundation Public Engagement Seed Grant to do just that. Feltman will partner with teachers and digital media experts to build a virtual reality experience of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame at Reims in France and incorporate it into seventh- and eighth-grade media arts classes in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The project will enhance State of Alabama curriculum, which touches only lightly on history before 1500, and aims to inspire an abiding appreciation for and interest in technology and the art, architecture and history of the Middle Ages. Feltman explains, “Architecture is an experiential art form. It is as much felt as it is seen. We want to help middle-school students understand Gothic architecture through an immersive, game-like experience.”

Feltman is one of 14 grantees in the 2020-21 Whiting Public Engagement Program, a distinctive national grant founded to champion the public humanities in all its forms and to highlight the roles scholars play in using the humanities to advance communities around the country. Her application to the Whiting Foundation was sponsored by the International Center of Medieval Art.

The VR Cathedral Experience is the first project of Feltman’s research collaborative, Networks of Gothic. Inspired by the interdisciplinary networks of creative people that made Gothic architecture possible, Networks of Gothic brings together art historians, educators, and digital media experts to study Gothic buildings using the latest technologies.

The VR Cathedral Experience is based on a highly accurate digital scan of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Reims made by art historian Dr. Robert Bork (University of Iowa). Using this scan, a team from Florida State University’s Film School, led by digital lighting and effects specialist Tom Mikota, will develop the VR experience. UA assistant professor of art Jonathan Cumberland will design the website. The project will be piloted at Alberta Magnet School and Tuscaloosa Magnet Middle School. The team’s first collaborative workshop will be held at CARI (Collaborative Arts Research Initiative) at UA.

Feltman, who has taught at UA since 2016, received the M.A. and Ph.D. with distinction in the history and criticism of art from Florida State University and the B.S., summa cum laude, from The University of Alabama in interior design with a minor in art history. She said that her connection to the project is personal: “I was first inspired by the arts at Dunbar Magnet School in Mobile, Ala. I have no doubt that my eventual career choices were shaped by the creative and engaging educational experiences I had there. I want to create something that might do a similar thing for other young students and am excited about the opportunity to do this over the upcoming academic year.”

For information about The University of Alabama’s programs in studio art and art history, visit our Degree Programs page.