Museums are becoming more playful … in how they ask us for money

Neil Armstrong’s suit has attracted over $500,000 from crowdfunding. NASA/HO

On the 46th Anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind, the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum launched their phenomenally successful Reboot The Suit crowdfunding campaign, the Smithsonian’s first attempt at garnering micro-payments through the site.

They have now reached their goal of $500,000 in supporting pledges, meaning that the conservation, digitization and display of the original spacesuit worn by Armstrong for the moon landing in 1969 can now begin. I found myself captivated by the Twitter frenzy generated by the campaign and (not for the first time) lured into making a pledge by the promise of stickers and kudos.

The Smithsonian is not the first museum to turn to crowdfunding as a mechanism to secure financial investment and to foster relationships that are the other truly valuable legacy of such campaigns. The UK Museums Association has tipped crowdfunding as the big growth area for this year, especially for smaller organisations that might otherwise struggle to get new initiatives off the ground.

Reboot the Suit. Kickstarter

There are now plenty of success stories. Llandudno Museum raised more than its goal of £3,000 in 2014 in order to bring home Blodwen, a skeleton from the Neolithic period. The People’s History Museum recently successfully crowdfunded Join The Radicals, their #GetMary campaign to sponsor a radical hero – in this case Mary Wollstonecraft – and put her name on the wall of the museum. In these instances, and most of those on the Art Fund’s Art Happens crowdfunding website, the total goal is far more modest than that of Reboot The Suit. There have been less positive experiences also; earlier this year the campaign to raise funds to open an Ian Curtis Museum in Macclesfield only raised 1% of its overall goal of £150,000.

So crowdfunding is an unpredictable endeavour. Research shows that most projects either exceed their goal amounts by narrow margins, or else fail catastrophically. There are of course some stories of significant overfunding too, and Reboot The Suit looks on course to enter that category.

Arts funding is notoriously difficult to come by, especially in an age of austerity. Museums are being encouraged to be more resilient, more entrepreneurial, and to explore new forms of patronage. They are also becoming more playful. They speak the language of social media and are not afraid to address their supporters – their fans – as equals. “You’re the Best” the Smithsonian tells me on committing my pledge. In their next update; “We’re all dancing the moon walk because of you!” Their genuine excitement at the enthusiasm generated by the campaign is palpable. We might note that museums are well placed to succeed with crowdfunding campaigns because they have access to a pre-existing and often significant following of friends (and, crucially, friends of friends) on social networks.

Not the most reliable source of income. msk13, CC BY

There are many reasons museums want to embrace this funding mechanism beyond the obvious ability to fund a particular initiative; to demonstrate demand for a project (or to fail quickly and quietly), to garner support and wider publicity, to reach new audiences and exploit their social capital and to project themselves as connected and relevant in today’s changed cultural landscape. But this activity raises questions also; should institutions that receive state funding be appealing to the public for additional support? Might crowdfunding become seen as a valid substitute for state support? Is it exploitative of those who pledge? These are ethical questions, and are not easy to answer.

In the UK there is an ongoing debate about how we should articulate the value of culture. As individuals and communities our perceptions of culture and the arts are not static. Assessing their worth, vitality and importance begins in the relationships we have with cultural institutions and the experiences they foster.

However, how the value of a cultural encounter manifests and mutates in the online environment is an underexplored question. In crowdfunding campaigns those experiences can be inventive, educative and rewarding; the value is in participating in something simultaneously individual and collective. Why is it that I get such a buzz from being a backer on Reboot The Suit even when I may never be able to visit the final exhibit that will be the outcome of the project? Why is it that I don’t feel exploited but privileged? At what point will my enthusiasm for these platforms, and my resources, prove finite?

Crowdfunding campaigns, for all of their unpredictability, are incredibly seductive. Museums are dynamic and shifting institutions, and they have stories to tell that we want to be a part of.