Un-Stuffy Museum: The Louvre Goes High-Tech with Video-Console Guides

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Franck Fife / AFP / Getty Images

A picture of a handheld Nintendo 3DS console which replace audio guides at the Louvre Museum taken on April 12, 2012 in Paris

When the Louvre Museum ditched its traditional audio guides last month and launched a new guide system using Nintendo 3DSpocket video game consoles, there was doubtless some hyperventilating among the art world's old guard. But for the Louvre, the new guide had nothing to do with Super Mario Brothers; rather, it represents a major leap into the digital era that museums everywhere are realizing is essential to attract a new generation of patrons. "It's become strategic," says Louvre associate director Agnès Alfandari, the institution's digital development chief. "A museum today that doesn't answer the question of how it will integrate new technologies at every level of its functioning will, in my opinion, be seriously missing the boat."

Around the world, the guardians of culture are weighing the potential benefits of bringing new digital technologies into their museums while also remaining faithful to their fundamental mission of reaching the widest audience possible. For the Louvre, the world's biggest and most-visited museum, however, the decision was easy. The usage rate for its traditional audio guide had dropped to just 4% of its 8.9 million annual visitors, so the museum figured that embracing a new kind of technology was a necessary step. "Society has gone digital in a radical way," Alfandari says. "From the Internet becoming such a central part of our daily lives to the revolution of smartphones, the Louvre's role is to follow this evolution in society."

Given the Louvre's labyrinthine, 60,000-square-meter space and the fact Wi-Fi doesn't work inside because the walls are too thick, Alfandari says the 3DS guide is "simply a small miracle" — an interactive map with real-time positioning technology, showing visitors their exact location in the museum. It allows visitors to personalize their experience, leading them straight to a famous work of their choice, on a guided tour of masterworks, or, in the coming weeks, on various family-oriented tours. High-definition photos of works allow visitors to zoom in close to Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, despite the crowds. There are also 700 audio commentaries on art works, with sign language video presentations on the way. If nothing else, it's worth the five-euro rental fee to visit the Winged Victory of Samothrace, where the glasses-free 3D technology and animation permit one to view the statue from every angle, intensifying the impression of movement in the winged form alighting on a ship's prow.

The Louvre's digital drive doesn't stop there. The museum has also revamped its website to include virtual museum tours and 3,000 pages of content for art enthusiasts and educators. In coming weeks, it will release new downloadable smartphone and iPad applications, including smartphone versions of the 3DS audio tours. And a digital research partnership launched in 2006 between the Louvre and Tokyo's Dai Nippon Printing company is bringing an array of new interactive multimedia installations to the museum. One installation launching in June will teach visitors how to decipher a 1,000 B.C. Egyptian stele, for example, while another explains the importance of a 1753 bleu céleste porcelain service to the pageantry of a royal supper under Louis XV.

Such partnerships are valuable as technology evolves faster than any museum alone can follow. At conferences like MuseumNext in Barcelona or Museums and the Web in the U.K. and U.S., institutions from around the world gather to share their experiences and learn about the most recent digital advances in the museum community. Earlier this month, 1,000 participants from 165 institutions took part in the Museums & Mobile online conference on mobile technologies, logging in from New York to New Zealand to hear Charlotte Sexton from London's National Gallery speak about how the museum became the first in the world to offer a mini-tour using an iPhone application and Elizabeth Margulies of New York's MoMa talk about developing a new iPad application that will illuminate the museum's collection in terms of how artists use color, shape and line as building blocks.

While some museums remain skeptical about jumping on the high-tech bandwagon, Alfandari believes digital technology is simply another educational tool for museums, which when used intelligently can enrich the visitor's experience and perhaps even attract a new generation. "We wanted to confront the Louvre's rather classical, institutional image with that of Nintendo, which is much more fun and playful, to pass the message that the Louvre is an open, relaxed, cool place," she says. About half of Louvre visitors are under 26, Alfandari notes, but most are either young children or adults aged 18 to 26 — there are few visitors in between. "I don't know what museum manages to get 15- and 16-year-olds coming in," Alfandari says. "But it would be rather extraordinary if we managed to get that slice of public." In September, they'll get some idea when a study on the Nintendo 3DS guide is released.

Success for the Louvre would certainly boost the argument that a smartphone app, touchscreen installation or even a videogame console can open doors to an audience more immersed in technology than in art. "Everyone is looking at what the Louvre is doing, the museum community as a whole will want to see how successful it is," says Loïc Tallon, founder of the Museums & Mobile conference. "How will it change people's behavior, and affect people's enjoyment of the artwork? There are so many different types of interaction one could have in front of an object beyond just hearing audio or watching video, and they have device that promises this."

Alfandari says simply that the museum can't be "out of synch" with the reality of people's daily lives. "We conserve works that are part of the national heritage, we don't own them, and our mission is to see that they are accessible to the widest public possible. The fact there are still people who say, 'The Louvre isn't for me,' who think they wouldn't feel welcome, that's unacceptable." And that may be starting to change.