Monday, September 24, 2012

Crowd Sourcing Public History

Heather Cox Richardson

In 1901, electrical inventor Nicholas Tesla bought 200 acres of potato field on Long Island to establish a wireless telegraphy plant. Backed with J. P. Morgan’s money, Tesla hired Stanford White to design a red brick laboratory building in what is now Shoreham, New York. Tesla’s tenure in the building was short. In 1903, creditors repossessed his equipment and the man from whom Tesla had bought the land for the laboratory sued the inventor for nonpayment of back taxes. For the next eighty years, Wardenclyffe, as the building was named, passed through the hands of a number of different companies.

Now a not-for-profit corporation dedicated to creating a regional science and technology center on eastern Long Island is trying to raise the money to restore Wardenclyffe as a science center.  But money for building new education centers is hard to come by, especially these days. So the organization has turned to crowd sourcing to raise the necessary funds.

The Wardenclyffe fund-raising film raises for me two questions. The first is why the board of directors focused the message of the film on the history of the building, rather than on the purpose of the center. Watching the film leaves a viewer with no sense of why the building is important, aside from its admittedly beautiful structural details. And yet, it seems reasonable to assume that there would be an audience for the idea that a center dedicated to spreading knowledge about science and technology among school children. So why did the directors decide to focus instead on being part of Tesla’s legacy, especially when he was only in the building so briefly?

Are historians right after all, that history matters and people think it’s cool?

The second question involves the role of crowd sourcing in public history. There is no doubt that we are in a new era. It has long been a source of frustration for organizations trying to attract grants—especially federal grants—that the success of applications often seems to depend on the political biases of the scholars the granting institution managed to dragoon onto that year’s advisory board. Crowd sourcing circumvents that problem.

In the process, crowd sourcing forces the people supporting a new project to explain to people—real people, not a blind grant panel—why their project is important enough for individuals to hand over cash to support it. This seems to me to offer a necessary spur to historians to articulate why what we do is important.

There are downsides to crowd sourcing, of course, but it seems to me to be the wave of the future. Historians had better learn how to ride it effectively.


Dan Allosso said...

Cool post! Strange video. Tesla did have a favorite pigeon -- I wonder how that clip made it into the final cut. He wanted to set up a standing wave at Wardenclyffe that would transmit electrical power through the air like radio signals. Inductive charging, like the way your electric toothbrush works, but on a planetary scale.

Tesla is of course still very highly regarded in certain circles, and the site seems to have a nice, steampunky ambiance -- but I don't think the video is pitching the thing to the right crowd. Amanda Palmer got $1,192,793 for her recording project on Kichkstarter. It probably doesn't hurt that she's Neil Gaiman's wife, but even so, there was a lot of style in her appeal...

More on Kickstarter:

More on Tesla:

Randall said...

Enjoyed the post. Interesting to think about what project designers think will appeal to the public.

This also reminds me of one of my fav episodes of Drunk History:

Craig Gallagher said...

Thoroughly thought-provoking. I'm particularly attracted to the potential in crowd-sourcing to fund history in the future, not just public history. Might we be entering an age where even purportedly academic projects rely on crowd-sourcing? I know, for example, that the Center for European Studies at Columbia has already appealed to public donations in order to finance it's pre-dissertation fellowships this year.

I think you are right to emphasise the "cool" aspect of future projects though. There is a time and a place to emphasise academic complexity and rigour for its own sake, but that is increasingly irrelevant to writing good, readable history these days.

Gabriel Loiacono said...

This is a really neat idea, and I am all for bringing history projects to the general public. It can lead, though, to some overzealous statements. For instance, the statement at 1:20 that "Wardenclyffe was the Hope of Humanity" seems a bit overwrought to me.