Crowdfunding a Museum: The Curious Partnership of a Nonprofit Organization and a Humor Website

In 1898, Nikola Tesla began plans for the Wardenclyffe Tower, a tower meant to provide power transmission and trans-Atlantic broadcast completely without wires. The tower was built in Long Island, New York, and Tesla began his work there in 1902. The project went downhill, however; design changes and loss of funding due to financiers not being satisfied with what they gained from the project led to the tower being abandoned in 1911. Before Wardenclyffe saw another headline, it saw two decades of use by a photographic company, then two more decades of ownership by an imaging company, followed by a cleanup effort to clear away the resulting silver and cadmium pollutants.

Wardenclyffe Laboratory and Tower, 1917 (view of the north entrance)

After years of varying neglect and alternate use and a designation as a Superfund hazardous waste site, Wardenclyffe found its way back into relevancy. The nonprofit group The Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe formed a strange partnership with internet comic artist Matthew Inman, owner of the website The Oatmeal, best known for Inman’s tongue-in-cheek grammar comics, expressive wildlife comics, and humorous publications, including Inman’s first book, 5 Very Good Reasons to Punch a Dolphin in the Face (And Other Useful Guides).

It began with Inman’s initial post in 2012. Using The Oatmeal’s signature recipe of sincerity mixed with vulgarity and Inman’s own opinions and pet interests, Inman posted a comic titled “Why Nikola Tesla Was the Greatest Geek Who Ever Lived” discussing some of Tesla’s inventions and why Inman believes Tesla was superior to Thomas Edison, which garnered criticism with its heavy bias but served the ultimate purpose of beginning the project to save Wardenclyffe. Inman followed this with a post to his blog calling his legions of fans to support The Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe’s effort to purchase the land where Tesla’s laboratory still stands to save it from potentially being demolished so that a for-profit company could build a commercial center. The post explained in minimalist terms the situation: The TSCW needed $1.6 million to buy the land, and New York state would give them a matching grant if they could raise $850,000, so the nonprofit needed funding. Inman, in support of the nonprofit, began the IndieGoGo campaign aptly titled “Let’s Build a Goddamn Tesla Museum.”

Between August 15th and September 29th of 2012, the campaign not only reached its goal of $850,000 but exceeded it, gaining a total of $1,370,461, a full 161% of its original goal, from 33,000 individual donors. Inman posted on his blog that, in nine days, the campaign managed to gain over a million dollars and raise $27,000 per hour at its peak, crashing IndieGoGo.

IndieGoGo Page

In May of 2013, Inman posted an update to let his fans know that the land was finally, as of May 2nd, signed over to the TSCW. Inman also stated that, while the land was safe from being demolished, the nonprofit still needed help restoring Tesla’s lab and building the facilities needed for the land to operate as a functioning museum. Inman’s next update came in conjunction with his review of the Tesla Model S car he bought. The update called on the owner of the Tesla car company, Elon Musk, also a co-founder of PayPal and founder of the private space enterprise SpaceX, to donate to the effort to fund the construction of the museum, which was not covered with the initial campaign funds. Inman noted that Musk’s company uses the Tesla name and technology but, due to Tesla releasing his patents, is in no way required to pay the Tesla estate for the ability to use the name or the technology. Inman tweeted the post to Musk on May 13th of 2014; Musk responded, simply stating, “I would be happy to help.” After a phone call with Musk, Inman reported that “1. He’s going to build a Tesla Supercharger Station in the parking lot of the museum,” and “2. He’s donating $1 million to the museum itself.”

Inman posted the most recent update to his Facebook page on September 24th. The post offers readers two ways to continue contributing to the museum’s funding, now aimed at building a new roof for Tesla’s lab: readers can buy a shirt or sweatshirt with the Tesla Motors logo on it, or they can buy a brick in one of three sizes that would have their name etched into it, along with their company’s logo at the largest size, to be placed on the museum property to honor the donor.

So far, the museum has installed a monument to Nikola Tesla in the form of a statue near the museum’s entrance. The construction process is coming slowly, but one thing the effort is not lacking is funds. Through the unconventional partnership of a nonprofit and an internet comic author, the Tesla museum effort has raised funds nearing $3 million, those being only the readily available numbers reported by Inman and in news articles and not counting the $850,000 grant supplied by New York state.

The effects on the museum itself of such a comprehensive effort of thousands of everyday internet users working together to make the museum a reality are still unclear. The act of crowdfunding a museum is not without precedent; many museums, including the Arthur A. Sackler Gallery, part of the Smithsonian, have relied on crowdfunding to help with costs. However, crowdfunding to the degree that the Tesla museum has seen is an altogether new phenomenon. The Tesla museum has been widely funded from its inception, not only by wealthy investors as Tesla’s original lab was funded but largely by ordinary people, from science enthusiasts to everyday readers of Matthew Inman’s comics. This very wide public investment in a private museum enterprise is one that relies on the very young business of crowdfunding which, according to a post by the Future of Museums blog, relies not only on supporters but on enthusiasts. Many of those who donated were inspired to enthusiasm by Inman’s comics lauding Tesla’s inventions and decrying Tesla’s relative obscurity beside Thomas Edison. By setting Tesla up as a technological hero, Inman created an image people wanted to see glorified and therefore were willing to help fund.

It’s difficult to tell, at present, where the project will go. However, it’s clear that the Tesla museum has set a new precedent for how a museum can be founded. The museum is no longer a stuffy affair funded by the wealthy; it is a project with enthusiastic investors in all walks of life contributing what they can and want to contribute to fund something they’ve been moved to support.

To donate to the museum effort, visit: http://www.teslasciencecenter.org/donate/

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3 thoughts on “Crowdfunding a Museum: The Curious Partnership of a Nonprofit Organization and a Humor Website

  1. Who would ever have thought that an internet comic could create a campaign to fund this project? If you told me this in passing I would not have believed you. Although unconventional methods were used to produce funds for this museum, they still reached their ultimate goal of creating a museum and not letting a commercial center take over. I think that it is great that there is a museum for Tesla, I mean the man does have his own motor company just like Ford who also has a museum of his accomplishments as well. My only question is what sort of content or exhibits will be on display at the museum? I know at the Ford museum in Las Vegas they have entire rooms full of cars with a story behind why Ford made this the way he did. I was curious to know if not only would the Tesla motor company be on display, but also his other scientific inventions as well?

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  2. I am surprised that one online comic author was able to raise that amount of money to create a museum. I think crowdfunding is really interesting, I had never heard of it used to such an extent. I am surprised you don’t hear about crowdfunding more often. It seems like it could be used on other projects that have a lot of public support. One thing I am slightly confused on is after the museum is finished be constructed what exactly is going to be the Tesla museum and who is going to run it.

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  3. I could probably spend an entire post detailing the historical inaccuracies in the original Oatmeal Tesla comic, but this is mostly irrelevant as in the end, as a worthwhile goal of creating a Tesla museum was achieved using an innovative method, crowdfunding, this is the important point to take away from all of this. In an ideal world, all museums would be funded like this by the public, so there would be less chance of wealthy donors making large donations and creating or controlling exhibits based on their personal interests. Crowdfunding is also great in this case because it creates a museum which is more in touch with what the public wants to see instead of purely museums with exhibits based on academic interest. It is a much more populist method of creating a museum and when the public decides what they want to see, there is guaranteed to be a base of people willing to visit and support the museum in the future.

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