Crowdfunding, hype & the Goddamn Tesla Museum

Posted on September 17, 2012

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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?