Crowd-sourced funding for museums is in the news these days, thanks to the Smithsonian’ successful Kickstarter campaign to conserve, digitize and display Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 space suit. The Smithsonian is not the first institution to take this approach to funding. Last year, the Field Museum and the Brain Scoop, led by the amazing Emily Graslie, raised money through an Indiegogo campaign to construct a diorama for their four striped hyenas, which had been without a proper habitat since they were mounted by Carl Akeley in 1899.
Crowd funding seems new and exciting, taking advantage of digital social networks to leverage donations large and small for worthy causes. But how new is it? As we discovered studying the Crocker Land Expedition papers at the American Museum of Natural History, not that new (except for the digital part, that is).
While the American Museum of Natural History and American Geographical Society were the main sponsors of the expedition, joined by the University of Illinois in 1913, subscriptions from private supporters covered more than half the anticipated costs. In fact, in addition to soliciting donation of equipment and supplies, the AMNH requested that Borup and MacMillan raise part of the funds through their own social networks, not online of course, but by the time-tested method of letter writing and in-person communication.
A typescript from 1912 (before George Borup’s death and the expansion of the project to include UI) demonstrates the success of this method – between them Borup and MacMillan raised over $17,000, with a further $6000 promised in cash, supplies and equipment. At a later date (after the expedition had been postponed due to Borup’s death perhaps), a further $3000 was added.
The donations range from General Thomas Hubbard’s generous $5,000 gift to donations of one or two dollars. Donors range from institutions (including Yale University, Borup’s alma mater, and Worcester Academy, MacMillan’s former employer) to friends (fellow alumni from Bowdoin are identified), and acquaintances. Some had long term interests in the Arctic – Hubbard, and Zenas Crane were both important supporters of Robert E. Peary’s work, for example. Peary himself promised money, and Col. Brainard is presumably David Brainard, one of the survivors of the Lady Franklin Bay expedition. Even presidents, past and future, make an appearance, as both Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt pledged support.
So, the Smithsonian and Field Museum are in good company, following in path established more then 100 years ago.