PARIS – The Louvre Museum is used to dealing with antiquities: Nearly all of its thousands of works of art date to 1848 or earlier. Now, it wants to create a relic of its own — the old museum audio guide.
The famed Paris museum, whose origins date to the 18th century, is pressing on toward modernity and going visual with new electronic guides in a deal with Japan's Nintendo. The guide provides 3DS game consoles that offer touch-screen, visual-and-audio guidance for visitors who teem the museum's labyrinthine halls by the millions each year.
Billed as an unprecedented innovation at a museum, the game consoles launched this week offer 700 recordings on famed works like the Venus de Milo, Winged Victory of Samothrace and the Mona Lisa — only a tiny sliver of the 35,000-odd works displayed in the museum.
The electronic guides, both navigational and informative, offer virtual glimpses of the artistic touches that are tough for the naked eye to see, like tiny details on towering tableaux on the museum's wood-paneled walls. They'll use much of the same information in the Louvre's now-shelved audio guides.
Pairing France's highest-of-high-brow museums with a Japanese technology company behind games like Donkey Kong, Mario Brothers and Zelda might not seem like a natural fit. And some may view the electronic guide as a shop window for Nintendo. But Louvre officials say the museum must change with the times, and try to access as wide a public possible.
Over the years, the Louvre has drawn controversy with some of its innovations, including the glass-pyramid entrance by Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei or its sharing parts of its massive collection with wealthy countries like the United Arab Emirates — which is to open a Louvre affiliate in 2015.
Above all, the console is meant to reach out to the Louvre's customer base: the museum welcomed 8.9 million visitors last year — more than half of them under age 30, and about two-thirds foreign.
The guides, for now available in seven languages, cost €5 ($6.50) on top of the museum's €10 ($13) standard admission price. And coming soon: French sign language.
Press a button, and the viewer virtually floats over, say, statues by Michelangelo, or zooms up close on the tiny cracks in the face of the Mona Lisa — all but impossible to see from behind a crowded rope line.
The console comes in handy peering high up at Veronese's 60-square-meter (645-square-foot) painting "The Wedding at Cana," across from the Mona Lisa. Details of the giant tableau easily seen on screen can be checked against the real thing.
The biggest benefit may be helping art lovers get around: Visitors see their location, which blinks inside a diagram of exhibit rooms on one of the console's two screens. A menu allows for a specific search for one of 50 of the museum's most popular works and can plot a path to get there. Another feature is a "masterpieces" walk.
Because of the Louvre's thick walls, and because some of its exhibit spaces are underground, 3G mobile phone networks don't reach everywhere inside. The positioning system relies on beacons posted around the museum.
Nintendo's director-general for France, Stephan Bole, insisted the console isn't aimed as a substitute for a live, in-person visit: Virtual isn't the same thing as seeing the works themselves.
"The 3DS is to assist a visit that remains live — you have to see the paintings to appreciate them," he said by phone. "We want to complement the real live visit."
Many visitors were spotted wandering around with the new 3DS guides Thursday afternoon. But some, asked about how they liked them, complained of a steep learning curve.
"The classic, usual audio guide works better. I would have to search for the information that's on this, instead of just pressing the number" next to a work of art, said Naoyuki Tomizawa, a 41-year-old IT manager from Tokyo.
Then a Louvre staffer showed how the console can do that, too.
"Oh, I didn't notice that," Tomizawa replied. "I haven't played around with it enough. The navigation part's good, when you get lost and don't know where you are."
Meera Bickley, a 45-year-old yoga teacher from Byron Bay, Australia, said she arrived too late in the day — shortly before closing — and could have used more time to figure out the console.
"Once I figured out how to use it, it was definitely helpful. The imagery was great, the maps ... but actually finding my way in and being able to use it, was quite complex," she said. "I was born in the wrong decade!"
Indeed, her 14-year-old daughter, Matilda Dods, said it was easy.
"I figured it out immediately. It gives you instructions on the screen. It says: press 'A' to get this and press 'B' to get this ... it's easy to figure out," said Dods. "Mom is challenged."