There are certain famous faces that you expect to see at the Louvre. The Mona Lisa, of course, the Venus de Milo and Napoleon. Liberty, perhaps, manning the barricades. The chap who dreamt up Mario and Zelda, Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto? Not so much. But then you might not expect to see hordes of the museum's 8.8 million annual visitors using Nintendo 3DS consoles to guide themselves round the historic museum, examining The Winged Victory of Samothrace in three dimensions. Because despite first setting out its stall as a gallery in 1793, the Louvre is keen to explain the importance of its art using 21st-century gadgets.
Last week, the Louvre rolled out a wholesale update of its audio guides that sees 5,000 3D-enabled handheld games consoles available to hire for €5 (£4) in a bid to appeal to the 50 per cent of its visitors who are under 30 – but without alienating older art fans. Traditionalists could be forgiven for snorting into their exhibition programmes, but the Louvre is simply the latest establishment bidding to engage and excite audiences who increasingly expect more than crackly commentaries, dodgy headphones and printed labels.
"The Nintendo 3DS is a device that is mainly used by young people to play games, so using it as an audio guide in a museum does raise a number of questions," explains Hervé Barbaret, administrateur général at the Louvre. "There's the risk that things won't run as smoothly as planned, or that some may disapprove of the use of a games console in a museum, but I am ready to shoulder that risk and the reason why is because it is not a gimmick."
Although handing out the devices, which have two screens (one touch-screen, one that shows 3D images without the need for special glasses) is an exercise in trying to be down with the kids, and therefore probably does have a touch of gimmickry about it (sorry, Hervé), the devices are a sensible choice. They offer a good mix of basic (700 commentaries on famous art works, an easy-to-check map) and more advanced technology (3D models of sculptures) and the little black boxes, which hang from straps around visitors' necks are sturdy, as parents across the world – who will no doubt have seen their offspring' DSs bounce down stairs – can attest. There may have been a parent involved with the decision to do without the device's stylus, a little stick that might as well have "lose me" engraved on it.
But will grandma be able to use it? "All visitors, even those who are not used to using video games machines at all, or other electronic devices, can enjoy it comfortably," insists Shigeru Miyamoto. "You can follow the map and listen to the explanations [through headphones] made automatically to you without pressing any buttons yourself." Even so, visitor feedback is, he says, keenly awaited.
Having taken a tour around the gallery with a 3DS, I found it helpful, with fascinating on-demand commentaries, the ability to zoom in on elements of paintings (including that famous smile) and real-time localisation on its map – a much- hyped feature by both Nintendo and the Louvre as the museum is notoriously hard to navigate. Using it also makes obsessively photographing every exhibit with a phone camera tricky – something that can only be a good thing, making people look at the art rather than trying to record it.
Possibly not of much help to reluctant technology users is the additional smartphone app available, as well as the museum's sleek website. But despite the Louvre's desire to be seen to be embracing hi-tech tools, the 3DS audio guide is actually more of a bridge between an older style of hired guides and the brave new world of downloading content to an array of devices.
Yes, the 3D elements and touch-screen grooviness is more technologically enticing than an audio-only commentary, but the fact that the Louvre is providing the device to visitors rather than expecting them to bring their own shows it appreciates that not everyone is smartphone savvy.
While the Louvre has gone for a high-profile hardware update, other museums have different ideas about their digital offerings – although all have a take on technology and its role in engaging visitors. At the Victoria and Albert Museum, Malcolm Sutherland, head of digital projects, has discovered that in creating a range of exhibition-specific apps for visitors to download, as well as a free monthly "What's On" iPad app, the benefits go beyond guiding visitors around. "It helps connect us to audiences who have devices anywhere in the world and it's a powerful tool to use in the museum itself."
He confesses "I didn't realise until I was working on this that we have a music concert three times a month in one of the galleries. It's not just helping visitors, it's improving the infrastructure for staff."
One place that sees keeping up with tech as its duty is London's Science Museum. "We have a really long history of using interactivity as part of the experience," explains the Science Museum's Dave Patten, head of new media. "It goes back to the 1920s with the opening of the original children's gallery. We've always used technical ways of interpreting content and storytelling and we were probably one of the first museums to start putting computers in as interactive devices."
Interestingly, Patten sounds a note of caution about comprehensive moves from traditional audio guides to apps. "The biggest barrier to people using their devices in the museum is the unpredictability of cost. If you're on a free-data contract, it can be pretty much free, but it can be very expensive if you're on a pay-as-you-go contract. One of the things we've done over the past six months is to install public Wi-Fi across the site." The Science Museum, he explains, is honour bound to dazzle visitors with new ways of getting information across.
"We've done things such as running scavenger hunts on mobile devices and we've got a new augmented-reality app starring James May launching next week. We're also working on a major exhibition that opens in 2014 which has seen us prototyping transparent LCD screens where we're almost building showcases out of screens so content can appear in front of the object or behind the object so it's always in your field of vision."
Cutting-edge curatorial tools might be getting forward-thinking museums all aflutter, but new technology can also be used in a less on-message capacity. A group of artists protesting at Tate's relationship with BP have alternative audio tours of Tate Modern, Tate Britain and Tate Boat that can be downloaded from soundcloud.com/platformlondon-1 and played on smartphones.
Called the Tate á Tate Audio Tour, the soundtrack is designed to be listened to in situ and uses Tate visuals but replaces the sound with audio works by artists who have been commissioned by three activist organisations Platform, Art Not Oil and Liberate Tate. No doubt this is one innovation that the Tate feels it could do without.
Back at the Louvre, the 3DS audio guides have had the slots where you'd insert games cartridges disabled (so no sneaky games of Mario allowed) and will cease to work when taken out of the museum, to keep light fingers at bay. The guides, which took a year to develop, are as you read this, being used to zoom in on some of the world's most famous artworks. The only fly in the ointment? The headphones could do with bit of a hardware update...