Online Newcomer Sees BTB Dollars in Museum Industry

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A company started 10 years ago as a nonprofit service for the world's museums is venturing into the for-profit world, using the Internet to link institutions to both consumers and the businesses that serve them.


MuseumNetwork.com installed a megastore on its Web site in April, selling the prints, jewelry, sculpture reproductions and books that dominate the inventory of inhouse museum shops. The Philadelphia company resells merchandise from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, British Museum and Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, among others.


The megastore marks another step in a long development that began a decade ago when a group at the University of Pennsylvania formed a nonprofit to investigate how technology could benefit museums.


"The whole idea was to support museums, not to take money from them," said MuseumNetwork chairman/CEO Dick Price.


And that concept really hasn't changed yet. MuseumNetwork links consumers to 14,000 museum stores across the globe, and stores get that traffic without paying referral fees or giving MuseumNetwork a cut of the revenue.


A much larger push soon to be under way will be dominated by business-to-business elements. MuseumNetwork market research indicated there's big money to be made in smoothing the links between museums and other firms, Price said. The company plans to begin connecting wholesalers and suppliers directly to museums in July.


"What we found was that the museum industry [is worth] nearly a hundred billion dollars of BTB business worldwide," Price said.


By the company's reckoning, that total comprises personal computers, shelving, paper and the avalanche of other goods museums need to operate, plus licensed items museums sell such as images bought by book publishers. MuseumNetwork puts the international business-to-consumer market at $80 billion a year.


Computer companies and others want access to the 37,000 zoos, art museums, aquariums, natural history institutions, historic houses and sports halls of fame in MuseumNetwork's database. The company compiles 56 data points on the institutions in its trove.


Similarly, MuseumNetwork plans to connect museums to the wholesalers that provide the merchandise sold in museum shops. The company will take a cut of the action whenever it connects a buyer or seller to a museum.


MuseumNetwork also plans to charge a flat fee to schools or individuals wanting to subscribe to an image database. The company also has put together 14,000 "curriculum modules" on various educational topics that it can provide for teachers.


Other planned revenue models are less transaction-based. The company's site runs banner ads, and corporate sponsorships are in the works as well. Price envisions the botanical gardens portion of MuseumNetwork's database perhaps being "brought to you by" a seed company or the sports museum part of the database being made available under the auspices of an athletic goods company.


Price said MuseumNetwork is in talks with more than 100 companies that are considering other sorts of business alliances. Unnamed companies in the wireless and travel industries approached MuseumNetwork about services designed to give mobile device users key information on museums in their area -- what time they close and the cost of admittance, for example.


Price pointed to online mapping firm MapQuest.com Inc. as a business that has finalized a deal with his company.


For now, however, the foray into e-commerce is still in its early stages. MuseumNetwork's megastore has a limited selection of merchandise the company still fulfills on its own. But Price expects that inventory to grow.


"Like any big enterprise, we're going to make sure that it works in small steps before we see if it works in much bigger ones," he said.

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