Crowdfunding, hype & the Goddamn Tesla Museum

There must have been a collective intake of breathe from museum professionals around the world last month when Matthew Inman from The Oatmeal put the call out to build a Goddamn Tesla Museum, inviting donations and support via Indiegogo.  The crowdfunding project has now raised more than $1.2million, with the city of New York promising to match $850,000 of that money. Imagine that. More than 30,000 people have pledged money towards an as-yet-nonexistent museum/science centre. Science! Nerds! Money for a museum! How totally rock and roll.

Despite the attention that has come to it since Inman’s involvement, the project isn’t a new one. The Tesla Science Center (formerly known as the Friends of Science East, Inc.) has been formally active since February 14, 1996, so although the Tesla Science Center has now come to the fore with the crowdfunding project, it has not simply appeared out of thin air. This has been a long-burning campaign that has just undergone a radical shift in prominence. From being a pet-project and passion for the TSC, something that must at times have seemed no more than a pipe dream, the Tesla Science Center now holds potential to be real. What a colossal shift in the course of a month.

The shift in attention, prominence, and possibility brings with it all kinds of interesting questions. First, let’s assume that the FSE does acquire the property (there are other bidders, like Milka Kresoja). What then? Are the Board of Directors for the TSC in a position to capitalise upon their sudden rush of funds and support? Is the museum actually feasible? And how will those thousands of people who have contributed to the project feel when it starts to move from months into years before the Tesla Museum becomes real?

This is one of the as-yet-untested aspects of such a big crowd-funding project; can a project built on hype and excitement, which invites emotional and economic investment (some of it significant) from people all over the world, continue to hold attention, to live up to its own build up? Or is there an inevitable backlash when projects change, adapt, or even fail?

Back before I dedicated myself to solving the many mysteries of museums, I worked in the music industry, so hype is something I have a fairly keen interest in. I have watched indie bands pick up buzz as early adopters gathered around and invested in them; knowing that they were in on something secret and special; a band with the compelling allure of potential. Once that buzz starts, capitalising upon it relies on timing and maintaining momentum. A band full of potential that waits too long to impress and live up to their early promise may all too soon be written off as a casualty on the hunt for the next big thing. Hype, buzz, potential – whatever word you want to use for it – can be all too fleeting, particularly if the return on investment is a long time coming.

Marketing company Gartner uses hype cycles to help characterise what happens following the introduction of new technologies. The hype cycle follows five phases, being a trigger in which “Early proof-of-concept stories and media interest trigger significant publicity. Often no usable products exist and commercial viability is unproven”; a peak of inflated expectations; a trough of disillusionment, when “interest wanes as experiments and implementations fail to deliver… Investments continue only if the surviving providers improve their products to the satisfaction of early adopters”; a slope of enlightenment; and finally a plateau of productivity, in which “Criteria for assessing provider viability are more clearly defined. The technology’s broad market applicability and relevance are clearly paying off.” Although the methodology is intended for technology adoption, such a cycle can likely also apply to this situation.

Gartner Hype Cycle

It is in this space that the Goddamn Tesla Project will prove to be an interesting test case. Mark Walhimer estimates that it takes between 5 and 10 years to start a museum, but if comments on The Oatmeal’s post like this one –  “Good luck Matthew! This Goddamned Tesla Museum needs to happen. RIGHT MEOW!!!!” – give any indication, then the slow-burn from now to then might indeed cause supporters of the project to fall into the trough of disillusionment.

On the Indiegogo fundraising site, it is acknowledged that:

Even if we raise the full amount and end up with $1.7 million, this isn’t enough to build an actual museum / science center. But it will effectively put the property into the right hands so it can eventually be renovated into something fitting for one of the greatest inventors of our time.

Similarly, on The Oatmeal’s FAQs about the project, Matthew Inman has written:

If this is a success, can you build a museum right away? What happens next?
The property the laboratory is on is a bit of mess. It needs to be cleaned up, restored, and there’s a ton of work to be done to actually turn this into something worthy of Tesla’s legacy. The money we’re raising is simply to secure the property so no one can ever mess with it and guarantee that it’s a historic site. It opens up years and years of time to figure out how to build a proper Nikola Tesla museum.
However, I would love to have some kind of Nikola Tesla festival on the property on July 10th of 2013 (Nikola Tesla Day), and have some kind of zany Tesla-coil-BBQ-cookout.

The short-term goal of a Tesla Festival may be enough to satisfy those who have invested in the project to see it as being worthwhile. Such an event would give a sense of culmination and momentum; both important for capitalising upon early hype and potential. But we aren’t likely to get real perspective on whether crowdfunding a museum from scratch can prove to be a rewarding model for either the museum or its funders for many years. In this way, the Goddamn Tesla Museum is likely to prove an interesting test case. It might be here that some real questions around museum innovation can be answered.

What do you think? Can interest in a project like this one be sustained over time, or is it inevitable that those enthusiastic geeks the world over will become disillusioned as the Museum takes years to move from idea to actuality?

15 thoughts on “Crowdfunding, hype & the Goddamn Tesla Museum

  1. I do think that crowd funding (or something like it) will start to be used to fund larger, long-term projects like this one, if for no other reason than our traditional investment structures no longer seem capable of doing so (so much non-museum-related discussion could be had around this statement, and has). Crowd funding is stepping in to fill a gap that the traditional market has left open.

    I do not know when the first successful project like this will happen as a result of crowd funding. We’re still taking baby steps in that direction, and the SEC is trying their damnedest to make it harder (in the US at least) to get crowd funding so that could set us back a bit. It would be awesome if the TSC were the first, but I remain skeptical. They’ll certainly get their property this way, but I suspect they’ll have to seek traditional funding sources to do anything with it.

    I think with somebody like Inman as figurehead the TSC could get a lot of sustained support through crowd funding. The trick for them is going to be finding the right balance; when to ask for money, how much to ask for and what to offer as the next goal. But somebody like Inman, with a large and mostly bored audience, can easily convince ten or twenty thousand people to each give twenty to fifty bucks to a vague Tesla-themed anything a couple times a year. He could print Tesla t-shirts and give the proceeds to the TSC and easily raise a few million more. Having a pop-culture advocate with a loyal audience can make a huge difference. Achieving the same level of visibility without that advocate is harder.

    1. Matt, that’s quite interesting. I was listening to a Planet Money podcast the other day ( about start-ups eschewing going public, preferring instead to build a start-up that is then bought out by a bigger company like Google. But the conversation also examined why public corporations existed at all, to build bigger companies and tackle bigger projects than could be done privately. Now, crowdfunding doesn’t fit in here, because it isn’t governed by the same rules or conventions of public funding/purchase of companies, but it does have some resonances. It will be interesting to see how government and self-regulation of such projects does start to impact upon their shape over the coming years/decades.

      The personality question that both you and Amanda start to touch on here is interesting. Inman’s involvement is what has made this possible, but it might also bring with it certain cost and compromise on the initial vision of the TSC founders. I wonder how they will feel about the crowdfunding project if there becomes ongoing pressure to adjust their ideas for the Center to meet the expectations of their thousands of funders? What happens if Inman loses interest, or conversely wants more control than just being a major donor/supporter? The idea of attaching a project to someone with such visibility will no doubt complexify aspects of the project, whilst simplifying others. It is going to be very interesting to watch how this plays out. In some ways, this could be participatory museum building on an entirely different scale from what we’ve witnessed before.

      1. I think the risk of losing control in this scenario is pretty slim really. Expectations are laid out pretty clearly in this particular example. Anybody who cries foul if they don’t like the outcome should have read more carefully. The real problem is going to be maintaining interest over time while not sounding like they’re constantly asking for money. I think that’s the main reason why they’ll eventually result to more traditional methods of fund raising.

        But there will, at some point, be a long-term effort to sustain funding for something through means that we typically associate with crowd funding today. I think the more likely candidates for that are community libraries, hackerspaces, neighborhood improvement initiatives and the like. I see no reason why a small museum might not some day be included in that kind of thing. It’s really not that different from traditional fund raising (asking people for money), it’s just a different set of mechanisms for achieving the same end. Inman is to the TSC now as Jerry Lewis was to the MDA (I have no idea if anybody will get that reference outside of the US), and Kickstarter (or Indiegogo or whoever) is the new telethon.

        As far as the (not museum-related) IPOs go: those of us who have spent a lot of time in startups have known for a long time that the only good reason to have an IPO is to cash out and start something new, and even then you only do that if you can’t find someone to buy you out wholesale. The stock market is a terrible place to build capital investment anymore. It’s basically a mechanism for arbitrage now, or for taking advantage of suckers who haven’t figured that out yet (ie. anybody who bought Facebook stock).

      2. Hey Matt – you’re bringing up the Telethon makes an interesting point (and yes, the reference misses me, but we had telethons too)… in each case, this crowdsounding and the telethon, the funding is event-based. It has a start and end point, and culminates in a public way (people can see what the numbers are adding up to as they go). How much do you think that makes an impact in crowdfunding?

      3. I think it’s absolutely essential to the success. That event-based nature of the thing makes it feel like you’re working toward a shared goal that’s attainable in a knowable time frame. But that can’t work all the time for multiple reasons.

        First, I just can’t sustain that level of caring for too long. No one really can. It’s exhausting in very real emotional ways. There’s a reason crowd funding campaigns typically only last 30 days and people typically give the most to them either at the very beginning (when it’s newly hyped) or very end of the campaign (when the deadline for the goal is encroaching and we just need a little bit more to make it).

        Second, telethons work because they don’t happen every day. The MDA thing happens once per year and everybody knows about it because it’s all that’s on network TV for a full day. And hey, Jerry Lewis, we hardly get to see that guy any other time (or at all since the MDA gave him the boot). The rarity of the event makes it feel more important and more urgent. If it happened too often, people would start to skip it. “I can give to the next one,” they’d say over and over again. Even once a year has started to wear on people giving to the MDA and that’s a charitable organization that’s trying to cure sick children. What chance do museums have when using that kind funding model?

        Trying to sustain a big endeavor over a long period of time requires asking people for money more than once per year. I don’t think a kickstarter every quarter is going to work for the same reasons that people don’t hold telethons every three months.

        Right now each individual kickstarter that works does so because it feels like a unique and new thing. It’s not the MDA asking for money every month. It’s a new person asking for money for a new thing each time. But eventually, people are going to get fatigued here too. Pretty soon (already in many cases), kickstarter campaigns are all going to start looking like kickstarter campaigns. Crowd funding only works if the campaign distinguishes itself from the other campaigns, but these things are starting to become pretty formulaic. There will be a backlash against that and crowd funding strategies will have to change again to adapt.

        I think that’s something many people haven’t noticed yet. To be successful with this kind of fundraising, you’re going to have to constantly change your approach and your message. It’s a lot less consistent than what we’re used to. I think something big and long-term will find a “crowd funded” source of revenue at some point, but while the methods for collecting the funds may resemble current crowd funding, the message of the organization being funded and the methods of communicating with their funding base probably won’t even remotely resemble what we’re seeing now.

  2. One thing I’ve been thinking about is that the major fundraising front man is someone almost wholly unconnected to the original organization planning the museum. The people who donated after he publicized the Tesla campaign associate a future celebration of Tesla with the Oatmeal’s style and goals – which may or may not intersect or overlap with the Tesla Science Center’s. Will the crowdfunders be frustrated if the eventual outcome of their money is not what they expected at all? Will the TSC have to move from its own mission/goals to align more closely with Matthew Inman’s? (Not sure the second is necessarily a bad thing, but it might produce tension.)

  3. The cynic in me thinks that “There must have been a collective intake of breathe from museum professionals” didn’t happen because I don’t believe that many museum professionals knew about it.

    There’s a lot of hype at the moment for kickstarter (not Kickstarter) initiatives and the first few have started to deliver what they promised. Difficulties of crowd funding a museum aside what has been great about this movement is the increased transparency in the process of putting things together. Outside of museums, the makers through social networking have replaced big, opaque industry and in museums already this project is providing a great deal of insight into the ways museums work that isn’t through digging through reams of policy documents (always the year before last’s version).

    1. Ha! Mcarnall, I really laughed at your cynical view of my first line. You are of course right. Although I was being a little rhetorical, it’s a good reminder not to assume that everyone is having the same conversations and seeing the same links as I am.

      I really like your point that kickstarter initiatives bring with them additional transparency, although again, that recalls to me the comparison with public companies, in that their shareholders are given that kind of information. Hmm.

  4. I wonder if crowdfunding can also be seen as a form of ‘money where your mouth is’ petition signing. Could the fact that the TSC gained this level of support in a short period of time help leverage funding from more ‘traditional’ sources?

    After all, a successful crowdfunding campaign is a tangible demonstration of public need and support, something that traditional funders are always asking for.

  5. Suse,

    I think the TSC is the most exciting project in the museum field in the world today (Louvre Abu Dhabi is peanuts comparing to this), not because of what it already achieved but what it may become from now on. And I’ll tell you why.

    1) This is the best opportunity so far to “build a museum from the ground up for speed and agility, rather than stability and longevity”. I wish the global museum community (all the museum geeks) could embrace this project and join the other geeks – get together to build something we really can be proud of.

    This is the real motor of the project, considering that we had a real good push. Museum geeks could donate hours and intelligence. Collaborate to establish the core values of its brand, a worldwide program to collect not only science memorabilia but essentially to empower young creative minds. The image of Tesla got it all: a rebel mind, open wide creativity, a touch of irresponsibility (he used to shoot x-ray in Mark Twain and himself, isn’t it?).

    2) Once again, following Koven Smith’s motto, there is no problem if the physical museum takes 5 years to be ready. What counts is what you can build until it gets done. The power of this project relies not on the mortar and bricks. From exhibitions to an alternative TED model of ideas propulsion, from financing films to active projects in schools, I do think TSC has the power to become a reference for the world. In fact I also think that TSC could lead a proactive role in the contemporary discussion that was traditionally occupied by the intellectuals in 60’s and 70’s, for instance. There is a long and prosperous life for this project.

    1. Luis, I have to admit you’ve knocked me over with this answer. It completely rephrases the way I was thinking about the project. I love the idea of just starting up a kinetic museum before there is a physical museum, and acting upon the intent and mission of the museum publicly well before that side of things is made concrete. In some ways, I suppose that was what was so interesting with the Dutch Museum of National History, was that they were acting as a museum before they were a museum.

      But could we crowdsource from within the museum community to co-build a museum? It would be a tricky model to run and strike balance with (look at the trouble that Amanda Palmer has had of late; but you are right. It could be a very interesting vehicle for exploring these ideas – but only if the TSC board were totally on board with this sort of approach, and there’s a good chance they might not be. But still, it does raise the question, could the TSC use this kickstart they’ve been given to become a model for the kinetic museum. And if so, how? What would need to happen to make that possibility a reality?

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