The Museum Of Science And Technology Leonardo Da Vinci: Ultimately, The Online Activity Leads To Income


About a month ago we had a chat with Paolo Cavallotti, Chief of Internet and Interactive Media of the National Museum of Science and Technology “Leonardo da Vinci” in Milan.

Result of our  intense conversation, is the  long interview below. I won’t start talking about the Museum and in how many ways this marvelous institution leads the way in using digital media in our country. Paolo’s words deserve all of your attention as he has been direct, honest and realistic, just as we like! We hope that you will like what he said as well and that it will serve as inspiration for those institutions that still think that a media department in a museum might be an unnecessary frill.

The Web? is the starting point  for museums in Italy

F: The website of the MNST is a rare example of completeness, curated in the details, from contents to usability. It is also possible to personalize the home page! Could you tell us about the evolution of the website up to this result? What is the critical factor when talking about web and museums?

P: This Museum has been the first to invest on a web and new media department. The Direction, in 1998 – the prehistory of the internet, demonstrated great vision when took this decision. The director, Fiorenzo Galli, allowed me to build my team from scratches, without having to outsource the service. Our Museum has been one of the first in this sense, and at the time there was a big lack of awareness in terms of platforms and tools, either internally in the Museum as well as in the cultural field on a national level. What followed was, on one hand, an extreme freedom for experimentation that allowed to try different approaches. On the other hand, a negative consequence occurred. In some way we “grew apart” from the rest of the institution that was slowly becoming more structured and integrated.

It has been an ongoing  process, that led to many updates and remake of the website and other multimedia tools, along with was going on in the Museum at the time. If I look at the evolution of the department, this integration process made possible to reach a better quality in how we use technologies: from being just a cool thing, they became a crucial component of the Museum’s strategy.

Over the years these tools have become more and more important and, thank God,  fundamental. The Web is no longer “the new thing”, but rather the starting point for all the museums in Italy.

Sadly, many institutions need to outsource their websites to external agencies. This mainly happens for budgetary reasons. The consequence is the creation of a “shopping window” website, which often contains only basic information.

What makes the difference, in my opinion, is the possibility to have an internal team able to handle these languages and these tools so that they can be an extension of everything the museum does. An actual compendium of the museum: for my team is normal to be involved in every project or activity from the very beginning of every internal process.

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Social networks: is better less but good?

F: Let’s talk about social networks. The Museum is not present on every platform: for example you don’t have an Instagram or a Pinterest account, however you show that you can use in a good way the platforms that you have. Over the last year, also the private sector has shown a tendency in selecting which social media to use. What are the thoughts behind this choice?

P: Great question. I agree with the fact that is better to select a few channels and have good results rather than open many of them and not being able to handle them, from a qualitative and a quantitative point of view. I admit that I introduced this rather “drastic” approach myself. Social media need to have dedicated staff – in the case of the Museum I handle them – along with a clear strategy and a good dose of creativity.

I didn’t want to open 6 different accounts just for the sake of it, I believe it is crucial to focus on the ones that we think is strategic to curate: the most important thing is being effective and do a good job on those channels.
Furthermore, given the fact that not all the social media have the same audience, it is a strategic choice to commit to those channels in which your target groups are present. The public of our Museum are primarily families: this audience is far more on Facebook than on Pinterest.

Although social media are helpful for us in reaching out to new audiences, I know that on Facebook I can talk to our audience as well as the potential new ones. Facebook is our essential social network, here we handle the main communication and engagement activities of the Museum.

All in all, we use Facebook as the overarching social network that we tend to use on a daily basis, but it can happen that we refer to  others channel for special projects, as an integrated part of their communication plan.


Facebook is not a newsletter!

F: How do you diversify  the communication on different channels?

P: As I said, Facebook is our primary communication channel that allows us to talk to a broader audience, which is also our main target group. For Facebook, I think that engagement and interest of the people toward our contents is far more important than the number of fans.

Facebook can’t be used as an extension of a newsletter, it is not supposed to be used for visitor information that people can find on the website. The dialogue with the Facebook fans has to be special, based on real contents targeted for them, from offering free entrance to the Museum’s followers, to other more creative initiatives.

To give you an example that I am really fond about, while we were installing the new exhibition around the theme of Energy, I found a “mysterious exhibit”. I couldn’t figure out what it was, so I posted a picture on Facebook inviting the fans to guess. We offered free entry tickets to those who would have been close to the right answer. Want to know what happened? This post showed an element “behind the scene”, people participated in the life of the Museum and engaged with it and the staff on the Facebook page. The curator of the exhibition joined the conversation as well and offered to give a guided tour in the exhibition to the final winners. All in all, with a simple picture we reached great results, either online and offline, no costs!

I believe that showing passion and maintain a suitable tone of voice are right elements to have in social network: it is a dialogue, not a conference. As a general rule, we leave space for improvisation as we want to maintain a natural and friendly tone, and we follow a structured editorial plan only for long projects. What is also nice, is the fact that this communication channel is more and more becoming integrated on the daily activities of the museum: every day other colleagues come with suggestions for new posts.

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We also use Twitter for live updates of events and conferences. On a daily basis, the Twitter account is handled by different colleagues to provide updates from all around the Museum.

Who and how many?

F: How many people work in online communication at the Museum?

P: Just a few. I coordinate the Facebook channel and its strategy, besides other colleagues in different departments that manage Twitter. In The Internet and New Media Department we are four, we all have a backgrounds in humanistic studies, but what’s important is the mind-set!

“Online activity ALWAYS leads to income”

F: As a professional in the sector, do you believe that the economic investment in the web and in other communication tools is justified?

P: I want to be drastic on this point: there’s a huge difference between hiring internal staff and outsourcing the services. Of course, as technology moves fast, we have to refer to external companies to integrate the competences that we don’t have. However, we keep the full control of the project.

To communicate effectively and adapt its voice to the “real” voice of the Museum, internal staff is necessary. They know the institution, the collections, they live the Museum everyday and join the projects from the very beginning.

Every museum needs to understand where are the sources of income. The online activity leads to income. Throught the web you can highlight and give visibility to the aspects of the Museum through which income is generated: such as the facilities rental for events.

When a Museum doesn’t have access to significant funds, a good and recognizable identity on the web can draw the attention of private companies and potential investors, fundamental for the life of the Museum. The online image is a crucial element to position yourself, also with regard to other museums.

Everyone is subjected to this principle: the first thing we do when we look for something or someone is to check it on the internet and on social networks. This means that underestimating these tools is like using really bad business cards. To invest time and money on them means to create a recognizable brand, it can make the difference on the market.


F: How do you think we can use digital tools to provide resources for cultural institutions? I am thinking about the fundraising campaigns that the Museum of Science regularly launches, as well as our recent crowdfunding campaign. Do you think that these tools can make the difference?

P: Considering the environment for culture in Italy, fundraising is really important. Honestly, this museum has been able to evolve thanks to fundraising.

To be effective, a dialogue needs to be created with private companies. A dialogue structured in a credible way, that allow the development of projects, based on balanced relationships for co-creation, without giving up your values and identity.

Regarding our crowdfunding campaign for the exhibition of the moon rock, it has been our first “experiment”. We learned that there are complex dynamics behind it and is not possible to improvise. To be succesfull, a campaign as such needs to start from the core of the organization. The staff of the museum needs to advocate for it, generating a chain reaction to engage the public. Perhaps a smaller museum could gain much more benefits from a campaign as such, it would be less attractive for private companies but it would have a greater impact on the local community. The starting point for the success of a campaign as such is based on trust and loyalty of the public.

The perfect example is Palazzo Madama, that was able to do a wonderful job creating actual “clubs” for people that recognize the institution as a second home.

Translated by @mapnoterritory