Publication Date

August 27, 2012

Last week in public history funding news was a study in stark contrasts.

The National Park Service (NPS) is facing yet another round of budget cuts and the predictable result will be layoffs, parks falling into further disrepair, innovation stifled, and historical interpretation receiving even less attention as funds flow to maintaining infrastructure. Jonathan B. Jarvis, director of the NPS, remarked to the Washington Post that the steady erosion of public funding has spurred all sorts of entrepreneurial thinking, but at this point, there just aren’t many avenues that haven’t already been explored. Worse still, there does not appear to be any relief in sight.

In a world entirely detached from the funding traumas of the NPS, it looks like there will soon be a new historic site with a museum dedicated to Nikola Tesla in Shoreham, New York. This will be made possible by an online campaign called “Let’s Build a Goddamn Tesla Museum,” championed by a webcomic artist usually known as The Oatmeal, but who is listed in this particular campaign as the Dark Lord of Oats. The Oatmeal announced his intention to raise $850,000 for the museum on August 15. When writing on this blog post started, the project had raised $970,619. By the time this post was complete, it was up to $978,257. By the time the editors were done with it, it was over $1 million. There’s still about a month left in the campaign.

The National Park Foundation’s summer campaign is hoping to raise $250,000 by Labor Day. The Oatmeal raised four times that in a matter of days, and all he had to do was post the request on his blog.

In its report on the future of museums, the American Association of Museums paid special attention to crowdfunding—raising small amounts of money from a large base—and the increasing need for museums to look into sources of support such as Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and mobile payment systems. (Those unfamiliar with Kickstarter and Indiegogo can read more here and here.) Indeed, there is no shortage of museum and archives projects currently seeking funding through these and similar venues. The Arab American National Museum raised $10,000 for a bust of Helen Thomas. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum got $12,000 to buy a sign from the Yasgur Farm Dairy, site of the Woodstock Festival. The Video Game History Museum will launch with help from $50,266 in Kickstarter funds (they’d asked for $30,000). Of course, the Tesla Museum has already dwarfed these by far. We are looking at a whole new level of public history crowdfunding.

There are also a number of projects on Kickstarter that appear just as deserving but are either struggling or have failed to meet their goals. The Thompson-Hickman Library in Madison County, Montana, fell short of the $5,000 it needed to help advance its preservation projects. An effort to create a digital archive on Chicago’s hip-hop scene, including oral histories and documentaries, needed $15,000 and raised just $115. Both projects received nods and links from Kate Theimer at ArchivesNext, who despite being a great blogger and a noted archivist, has apparently not (yet) achieved the same level of influence as The Oatmeal.

In the case of the Tesla Museum, the stars just aligned. The Oatmeal has long been a fan of Tesla, championing him as the “greatest geek that ever lived” and defending his memory against writers who dare to compare him unfavorably to the hated Thomas Edison. The Oatmeal is not the only Tesla fan on the internet; interest has been growing for some time among techies, steampunk fans, and entrepreneurs. A not-for-profit organization got this particular campaign started before The Oatmeal lent his considerable influence to it, and the State of New York will match funds up to $850,000.

It’s worth considering what this new world of crowdfunding requires, especially in the context of the struggles faced by entities like the National Park Service. The “long tail” model of funding, that matches obscure interests to obscure projects, is being proven, right now, as highly effective but also largely driven by online social currents. It’s hard to see exactly how it can help an entity like the National Park Service, which has many more general funding problems of an entirely different order of magnitude. The “Goddamn Tesla Museum,” a.k.a. the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe, will be built, and that’s all to the good. However, we should not have to wait, for example, for John Brown to become an internet meme before we can properly fund Harper’s Ferry.

This post first appeared on AHA Today.

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