What the Internet's Nikola Tesla Obsession Means for the Future of Museums

The promise and peril of crowdfunding

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Nikola Tesla, a flamboyantly weird, underdog scientist, is a made-to-order Internet hero. With his flashy electrical machinery (artificial lightning!), mystical views, eccentric personal style, and productive career, Tesla has become a symbol of the power of nerds. He's the inventor as showman, the unjustly sidelined scientist being finally given a fair shake by his fans on the web. Tesla mythmaking has been taken to extremes, toward an ahistorical caricature of Tesla and Thomas Edison as gladiatorial opponents fighting over electrical transmission in the (actually-far-more-complex-and-interesting-and-involving-far-more-than-two-people) current wars of the 1880s. Tesla's very eccentricities have made him much less neglected, at least by historians, than his partisans claim.

No one has stoked this Tesla interest more than Matthew Inman of the satirical web comic The Oatmeal, whose usual subjects for comics include the annoying people on airplanes and the annoying ways people use email. His Tesla vs. Edison comic was a popular recapitulation of the Tesla apotheosis, and he has continued to advocate for Tesla's reputation.

Despite the historical inaccuracies, I find it impossible to be cynical about the way Inman has spurred his fans to donate more than a million dollars in less than two weeks to buy land for a Tesla museum at Wardenclyffe, Tesla's old estate on Long Island.

Here's why. In an unusual partnership, Inman is supporting an existing organization, the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe, which was formed in the mid-90s as a spinoff of a group already running a small science museum at a school, and soon joined forces with a group seeking to preserve Wardenclyffe. Wardenclyffe is currently a vacant former photography factory site, but Tesla's laboratory, designed by Stanford White, is still standing, as is the base of Tesla's enormous antenna tower from which he hoped to provide wireless electricity to the world. The Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign allows small donations from across the world (and more than 24,000 people have donated so far.)

My colleague Rebekah Higgitt at the Guardian expressed some skepticism at the prospect of Tesla commemoration at a science center (rather than a history of science museum), since neither contemporary science centers nor Tesla enthusiasts are known for excellent history of science interpretation. However, I do think that Tesla's legacy of showmanship, at least, is suited to a science center. Some Tesla electrical demonstration pieces, such as Tesla coils and the Egg of Columbus, are science center mainstays. It's unclear what the balance between Tesla interpretation and science education will be at the final museum.

Notwithstanding the amazing response to the Tesla museum campaign, I don't think we can extrapolate Kickstarter-type crowdfunding as the museum funding model of the future. This might be a perfect storm of the right scientific hero, the right internet celebrity, and the right cultural heritage project.

The campaign's goal was $850,000, now greatly exceeded with more than a month to go in the campaign. At $850,000, the Science Center is able to tap state matching funds earmarked in 2008 for the purchase of the site. It's important for them to raise the money now, because now that the environmental remediation of the photography plant has been finished, the site is on the market, and housing developers have expressed interest. But the site's purchase price is just a drop in the bucket. There are crumbling structures to restore, a site plan to implement, exhibits to design, develop and build, artifacts to acquire, staff to hire, programs to develop. Even once the museum development is done, operations and personnel will continue to be a funding challenge. Paying a heating bill is a lot less exciting than starting a museum for a neglected hero.

Another "crowdfunding" campaign that captured the imagination of cultural critics just happened here in Detroit. In the August 7 primary, voters in three metro Detroit counties approved a millage to support the Detroit Institute of Arts, the exceptional encyclopedic art museum whose government funding had been zeroed out. The DIA will receive tax support for ten years, long enough to build up their endowment and other funding toward self-sufficiency. The money will support educational and outreach programs, and, yes, operating costs. As of the day after the vote, the museum is free to residents of the three counties. Proportional tax support has also worked to keep museums vital in other American cities such as metro Denver.

The key, it seems, is community support, whether it's from locals who grew up with the museum -- or from a globally distributed group of strangers on the internet.