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Archives & Museum Informatics

Web Sponsorships: How Museums and Private Companies Can Play Together in a New Playground

Giuliano Gaia, Museo Nazionale della Scienza e della Tecnica "Leonardo da Vinci, Italy


One of the things that make the web exciting for museums is that setting up virtual exhibitions is so easy. You donít need much money, nor do you need to alter the physical structure of your museum in any way. This fact is going to change the way museums and private companies collaborate: you donít need "heavy" sponsorships to make your ideas come true. Moreover, new kinds of sponsorships are coming to life. Private firms can give you money, but not money only: they can give you visibility on their websites; they can give you graphic artists or programmers you could never afford; they can host your pages on powerful servers with fast connections. Now that the Internet is booming all over Europe and private companies have started investing more money on their web operations, web sponsorships are growing in importance, and getting companiesí attention is becoming easier for a museum. Web sponsorships can also be important as a first step in establishing collaboration; positive results can lead to sponsorships for the real museums. On the other hand, you have to take web operations very seriously, in order to make your sponsors happy. The Milan Science Museum web staff has been setting up this kind of sponsorship since the earliest days of the website; some of them have proved successful, while others have produced little or no results. By presenting some of these case-histories, we hope to provide other museums ideas for their own web-based sponsored operations.

The Milan Science Museum Website

Why should a Museum open a website, and invest in it a relevant fraction of its budget and of the energy of its staff? We at the Milan Science Museum have found four main answers to these basic questions:

To get new audiences A website can reach new categories of people, who are either physically far away, or out of the usual target of Museum initiatives.

To help the visit The website is intended as a tool to prepare for the visit to the actual museum, in order to understand better the importance of the objects and to give the visitor the possibility to prepare his own itinerary according to his tastes and interests. Itineraries are a necessity when visiting a 40,000 square meter museum with sections varying from Leonardo to clocks, from ships to trains, from bicycles to aeroplanes.

To experiment with the Virtual Museum By trying different kinds of "virtual exhibitions" we want to investigate the fascinating problem of the relationship between the museum, the audience, the real objects and their representations. Experimenting with the Virtual Museum will teach us something about the deep nature of the real museum.

To enjoy ourselves: Enjoyment is a part not to be forgotten when deciding whether or not start an activity. The web is amusing; you can use your imagination, experiment with many kind of different things, and have an intense feedback from your visitors.

The third point, the virtual museum, is perhaps the most important, and influences also the way we consider web sponsorships. Our Home Page was recently changed in order to emphasise this crucial point. In the centre of the new Home Page there is the image of one of the XVI century cloisters of the Museum, divided in two parts: the one on the left has links to all the sections and pages regarding the Real Museum, its activities and its collections; the other one, on the right, represents the same cloister in a wireframe version, and is linked to all the sections of the website composing the Virtual Museum.

fig. 1 - The Home Page of the Museum Web Site

In our vision the website should do on the Net what the real Museum does in the real world: conservation and communication. A few examples of our "virtual" initiatives will clarify what we intend by using the word "conservation" in the Net context:

Links To link a website from a Museum is saying that that website is valuable on a certain subject among thousands of others on the same subject. The Museum acts as a sort of "certifying institution" of the interest of the content of websites. In this sense we conserve: we try to make the most relevant websites emerge from the big ocean of the Net.

Special sections On the Italian part of our website there are a dozen special sections treating various subjects, from computer history to naval weapons technology. The content of some sections was not created by the Museum, but found on the Net and hosted in mirror on the Museum website, or, as in the case of the beautiful Atlas of Cyberspaces ( ), translated from English. We intend this mirroring as a valorisation of valuable websites, in a way stronger than the normal link. Hosting in mirror is also a good way to open new sections of the website with a frequency impossible to maintain if we had to produce all the content ourselves.

3D experiments One of the most innovative parts of the website is Virtual Leonardo, an experimental co-operative 3D environment allowing visitors to explore a virtual world. Like in a real world situation, a visitor can see where the other visitors are currently located, where they are going, and what they are doing. Visitors can interact with 3D objects, sharing the experience of the interaction with other visitors and "talking" with them through a chat window. (Paolini et al. 1999) Experimenting with new forms of communications is part of the mission of a science museum. A science museum should be not only a place to show the history of science, but also new possibilities for the future; the same should happen on its website.

This focus on the website as a virtual museum has led to an important consequence: that we see our website as an autonomous entity. This autonomy reflects also in the internal organisation of the museum: the webmaster now interacts directly with the director and does not answer to the Exhibitions Dept. or to the Communication Dept.; during the year 2000 a specific department will be created, the "Virtual Museum Department".

As an autonomous entity with an autonomous cultural activity, we try to have autonomous relationships with private companies, since we believe that in the play of sponsorships we are different players from the real museum, and that the playground is different too.

A different playground: a "light" playground

The Milan Science Museum usually operates as a classic museum in two different communication spaces, both of them "heavy":

the "real" space (in most cases the museum itself, or outside spaces like schools), in which you can communicate directly with the public, with collections, temporary exhibitions, interactive laboratories, special events, etc. Operations in this space are "heavy": events are slow and difficult to create, and much effort is needed, even economic, to make ideas become true. Every initiative has to be planned in advance and suffers from many limitations of space, cost, reachable audienceÖ

the media space (TV, newspapers, etc.) this kind of space seems to be light, since it's so ephemeral and does not involve any physical operation; but due to the high cost of the media space, it becomes heavy too. In fact you have to invest of money to produce your own TV program or magazine, or you have to invest much large amounts of time to get the volatile attention of journalists. The consequence is that even in this space ideas are usually difficult to realise.

The web space is much different. It is a light space, in many ways. Costs are low, compared to usual media space; things are easy and fast to set up. Audience is light: you can talk with your site visitors without mediation (differently than in most of the media space), but they can leave your website with a single click, while getting out of the physical museum is not so easy.

This new kind of playground also generates different players: in Italy most museums are seen to be very rigid institutions, tied with bureaucracy; marketing or communication practices which are very common in countries like USA or UK are only now starting to arise. Also philosophically Italian museums are usually focused more on conservation than on communication.

On the contrary, virtual museums can be much faster than their real counterparts; thereís no bureaucracy and little costs (web operations are affordable also for low-budgeted museum). In other words, the web is a place where the distance between idea and reality can be much thinner than in the real world.

This is good for private companies, who have often been frustrated by the slow pace typical of museums.

There is also another thing: the web is a very competitive field, in which different web sites and portals have to face fierce fighting to attract visitors. We know that we have one very valuable thing to offer: content. Content is king in getting audience (Harden 1999). Besides, we have an image of seriousness and independence, that is attractive for a company to be linked to.

Different kinds of sponsorships

Even in this different playground, main rules governing the sponsorship are the same as in the real world. You have to ask yourself: "What do I need?" and then "What can I offer?"

We needed:

Technical support (hosting, hardware and software for developing the website)

Web pages (art direction, graphics, special effects such as Flash, CGI and Java programming) and in some cases, even the content of the page.

Communication (links, media promotion, gadgets, etc.)

We could offer:

Communication on the Net: links and logos on our website, promotion in our mailing lists.

Communication in the real museum: posters, plates, media coverage from our press office, co-created events for journalists and general public, distribution of gadgets, etc.

Free use of our conference rooms for a certain number of conferences.

Possibility of mentioning the Museum as a partner in the company's external communications.

All of this has an economic value, even if difficult to define with precision, except for the third point, the conference rooms, which have a prefixed booking price.

We will now present four different sponsorships, in which needs and offers combine themselves in different ways.

Telecom Italia: an example of "multi-level" sponsorship

Telecom Italia, the most important Italian telecommunications company, covers many of our technical needs, as well as some promotional aspects.

Telecom Italia offered us:

  • web hosting for our website
  • An ADSL connection for our Internet Lab
  • 100.000 CDs with our site printed on for free distribution to museum visitors.
  • some funding and press office support to organise a presentation of the new home page of the website at the Museum

We could then define this as a multi-level sponsorship, in two senses: it is not only centred on the website, but also on the Internet lab, and it covers both technical and promotional aspects.

We will now detail more the four aspects of the Telecom Italia sponsorship:

Web hosting

Today you can get web space with your domain at very low cost, and for a Museum is very easy to get it for free, just by offering a little banner on its homepage. In fact we were already on a free web hosting with our registered domain with a small Milanese provider; we had direct FTP access to our pages for update. Telecom Italia offered us a worse situation, because we would not be able to have a direct FTP connection any more due to internal rules of the provider, and had to use complicated procedures to have our updates online. In fact we decided to accept this hosting for two main reasons, which are valid for many technical sponsorships:

Telecom Italia was going to become the only provider for the Museum, since it offered for free the ADSL connection of the Internet lab and some dial-up connections for the offices, so we had to give them the website hosting too. In fact the website is becoming an important help to sponsorships regarding the real museum: promising advertising on our website is something which is being done more and more by Museum officials during sponsorship negotiations.

In a sponsorship the "quality" of a sponsor is an important factor. Our previous provider was a small provider, while Telecom Italia is the biggest and most important provider in Italy. Being sponsored by Telecom Italia means being an important website, and that was a valuable image advantage for us.

Fig. 2: The Internet Lab

Internet lab connection

The existence of the Internet lab was an important factor in obtaining sponsorships for the website. The Internet lab is a room with twelve Personal Computers connected to the Internet where students can learn how to surf the net, how to use a search_engine, and other basic aspects of the Internet. During weekends the Internet lab offers free access to museum visitors. The Internet lab, opened in March 1999, has had considerable success, both among students and the general public (foreign visitors are very pleased by the possibility of using e-mail). In fact the Internet lab played an important role in obtaining sponsorships for the website since it provided our sponsors a point of visibility inside the museum. Moreover, the public of the Internet lab consists largely of schools, one of the most important target for potential sponsors. Telecom Italia provided an ADSL connection for the lab; this was good for promotional purposes, because it set up the Internet lab as a technology showcase (the ADSL connection was not used in Italy yet), and this gained the lab much attention from technical magazines.

We would also like to experiment with another kind of web sponsorship using our Internet lab. During lessons we make students visit certain websites; this means that these websites receive a substantial number of visits from a perfectly defined group of people; every advertiser's dream. We do not want to "sell" our students, but would like to use this to convince large, popular websites (such as music websites) to create some educational pages aimed specifically at our students.

Promotional Events: CD-ROMs and conference

Promotion of a website also includes outside-of-the-Net events and initiatives. Telecom Italia has financed two of these: the making of 100.000 CD-ROMs with the website for free distribution to museum visitors, and a conference at the Museum to present the website and the Internet lab to the press. This last move was important to get media attention, since many journalists still need a physical event to point their attention to a website.

Martin Mystère: a pure "web" sponsorship

Martin Mystère is a well-known Italian comic character, who investigates mysteries beyond the limits of official science, such as UFO's or the Bermuda Triangle. Martin Mystère appeared to be an interesting partner for a web-based operation with the Museum because of its popularity among young people 20 to 30 years old, a category which usually is not interested in our normal Museum activities.

Fig.3 The Sea Legends website

Sea legends such as phantoms or ill-fated ships were a good subject for a website with Martin Mystère: theyíre fascinating and pose interesting scientific problems, such as the effective dimensions of sea monsters like giant squids. Moreover, in the Museum we have a huge section of naval history, with a whole 62 meter long sailing ship, in front of which it is easy to let yourself dream of the Flying Dutchman. We wrote some texts and then obtained from the editor of two books about sea legends the permission to use images from the books as part of a link-exchange agreement between the two websites. Then we contacted the agency who designed the official site of Martin Mystère proposing this agreement to them: we were to supply the content, they were to create the pages and to ask the owners for the permission to use the image of Martin Mystère.

The problem of who to contact first when proposing a partnership is a difficult one. When you haven't had any previous contact, you usually have two possibilities: contacting the owner of the website directly, or the web-agency which is creating it. Both solutions have advantages and disadvantages. Contact with the owners is more direct but often difficult to get; contacting the web-agency can have two advantages: getting this link to the owners, and gaining the web-agency as an ally, if they feel you're offering them a way to make some extra money on the website. On the other hand, if they're not interested in the project, they can freeze the whole project (we have experienced this).

In the Martin Mystère case the contact via the agency worked well and the author gave permission to use his character and to host the pages on Martin Mystère's official site. This hosting was an important part of the operation, since it allowed us to have a visible presence on a large website. In fact, we are trying to make our website borders less and less defined; opening as many as possible pages with our content and our logo on important websites all around the Net. Our final goal is to transform the Museum website into something spreading like a galaxy, according to the open nature of the Net.

The resulting website is visible at it consists of 14 legends and an entire comic which is readable on the net thanks to Flash technology. Certainly it is a small website, but it is a good example of a "light" sponsorship, with a plurality of sponsors and no money exchange involved, since everyone agreed to work for free (even the web-agency), something made possible only by the low cost of web-based operations. The absence of money exchange sped up all the operations considerably, since sponsors are usually more willing to give away services than money.

Apogeo: a "content" sponsor

Apogeo is the most important publisher of computer books in Italy. It has recently opened a website with news and articles about IT, and is trying to re-define itself from "technical publisher" to a larger "IT culture publisher". We contacted them in December 1999 with a proposal, consisting of three points:

Fig.4 The Home page of Apogeonline

Books: Apogeo provided the Internet lab with a small IT library with their books, free copies of "Internet for Dummies" book and T-shirts for students visiting the lab and discounted books to be sold in the Museum bookshop.

Conferences: Apogeo and the Museum were to organise conferences at the Museum on IT subjects with the participation of some of their authors, who are well-known in Italy.

Website: Apogeo was very interested in starting a co-operation between its online review, Apogeonline, and the Museum website. In this case the interesting fact for us was that Apogeonline could offer not only communication, but content too. Their authors could well create valuable pages about the IT subjects. We proposed to them some pages about the development of the personal and home computers during the Eighties, from the Commodore 64 to the IBM PC. The pages would be hosted on their website with the Museum logo, like in the Martin Mystère website.

In this case, what emerges once again is the importance of a two-level proposal: to a publisher which has two main fields of action, real and online, we offered two different operational level: the real level, with the Internet lab and the bookshop, and the web-level, with the co-operation between the two websites.

Web Portals: "communication" sponsorships

Gaining visibility on the Net is one of the most difficult and important things to do for an important website (Streten 1999). In getting new visitors' attention web portals like Yahoo! are very important. In our Museum we had already experienced their importance as audience-raisers. During 1998 and 1999 every time Virgilio ( or Yahoo! Italia (, two of the most important Italian web portals, put our website on their Homepage we saw spectacular peaks in our access counters (Gaia 1999).

Basing ourselves on this fact, in January 2000 we decided to try a web sponsorship with one of these web portals. The idea was to propose a section on the web portal to which the Museum would have supplied content. Content is what web portals desperately search for, in their effort to overwhelm each other in terms of audience. In Italy there are 7-8 big portals fighting each other in what seems to be a win-or-die situation ñ experts think no more than three generalist web portals will survive. Every portal is backed by a different "real" Italian company (such as the car maker Fiat) or by big international portals such as Lycos and Yahoo!. Each one of this backing companies is pouring tens of millions of dollars in its own portal, hoping that it will become "The" portal. This quite Darwinian scenario seemed suitable to us for trying to get the best visibility we could.

Deciding what web portal would fit most has been a difficult decision. Portals are similar but have slight differences in terms of editorial profile, target, etc. At last we decided to contact the most "cultural" ones, i.e. the most content-oriented and the most high-profiled, thinking that our content would fit better in such a context. As for the content, it had to be suitable for our customer. It had to be:

  • of broad interest; web portals are broad-casting websites
  • dividable in many little sections, to publish with a pre-fixed frequency; web portals are oriented towards continuous updating to have people returning to their websites. Their communication model is the brief news more than the long dossier.
  • "Light": in language, in length, in bytes.

The Leonardo section of our website looked the most suitable; it is composed of more than 100 pages, each one describing a different invention. Our proposal to the web portal would have been to publish every day a different machine: "The Invention of the Day". A problem arose before we could submit the proposal to the two web portals we identified: the text of the pages was too difficult to understand for the large audience of a web portal, so we had to re-write all the pages, and thatís not an easy thing to do in a always under-manned and under-budgeted institution like a museum. That slowed down the developing of the project, which we hope to have online by summer 2000. In fact, it taught us that sometimes "suitable content is King".


Harden M. (1999), Directing Traffic to Your Website, paper presented at Museums and the Web 1999

Paolini P., Barbieri T., Loiudice P., Alonzo F., Gaia G., Zanti M. (1999), Visiting a Museum together: How to share a visit to a virtual world, . In D. Bearman & J. Trant (Eds.) Museums and the Web, Selected papers from Museums and the Web99 (pp. 27-35). Pittsburgh: Archives & Museum Informatics

Gaia G. (1999), Promoting a Museum Website on the Net, In D. Bearman & J. Trant (Eds.) Museums and the Web, Selected papers from Museums and the Web99 (pp. 230-238). Pittsburgh: Archives & Museum Informatics

Streten K. (1999), If you build it they will comeÖwon't they? Marketing a web presence, paper presented at Museums and the Web 1999,

Additional readings and resources on the topic

Galluzzi P. (1999), Musei Virtuali, Istruzioni per l'uso, IF 2

Antinucci F. (1998) Musei e nuove tecnologie: dovíè il problema?, Sistemi Intelligenti 2, 281-306.

Good Italian and international bibliography on online museology can be found on

A good Italian reference for web marketing is the magazine Web marketing Tools and the website