The Smithsonian Institution entered the world of space-age fundraising in July as it launched its first “crowdfunded” campaign to raise $500,000 to preserve the spacesuit Neil Armstrong wore when he stepped onto the moon in July 1969. This campaign—with the clever name, “Reboot the Suit”—rocketed past its goal in only five days.
It might seem odd for the Smithsonian to turn to online crowdfunding. The Smithsonian requested nearly $1 billion from Congress this year, while the most typical successful crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter, which is hosting the “Reboot the Suit” campaign, raises funds in the four-figure range. And the Smithsonian is one of the most established of American cultural institutions, while crowdfunding is most typically associated with new ventures that lack established backers.
However, the terrific success of the effort suggests that this will hardly be the last crowdfunding campaign by the Smithsonian. Notably, the Smithsonian boosted its goal to $700,000 after so quickly meeting its $500,000 goal, so that it could also preserve Alan Shepherd’s Mercury spacesuit. (The second suit costs only $200,000? Why is that?)
Of course, just because something is successful does not mean it’s the right approach. Is crowdfunding the way to go for the Smithsonian?
There are a few aspects of the fundraiser that might give one pause. We know that money is fungible—and it’s hard for me to believe that the Smithsonian would simply not find the funds to preserve an artifact like Armstrong’s spacesuit. So, is the money raised going to make a difference? Or just allow the Smithsonian to spend that sum in taxpayer dollars on other projects? On the “Reboot the Suit” webpage, someone lodged a complaint along these lines:
"I sent you a dollar to be able to publicly tell you, Smithsonian Institution, taker of over $800 MILLION public dollars a year, You should be ashamed of yourselves asking for more to do this."
On the other hand, an argument in favor of this new fundraising approach is the very democratic nature of the effort, which was noted in a Washington Post editorial:
The Smithsonian museums have always belonged to the American public, which is why charging an entrance fee has never made sense. Online campaigns reflect the institution’s role as a museum and research system of the people by relying on today’s citizens to exhibit more of their past.
Surveying the number and size of the gifts reinforces the view of this campaign as a democratic enterprise backed by ordinary Americans: as of this writing, almost 8,000 people had made donations, and about 10% of donations were under $11—the size of gift that visitors to one of the Smithsonian might put in one of the boxes for donations by an entrance—while only roughly 10% were $1,000 or greater.
Many donors wrote how meaningful this project was to them, and how important space exploration is as a public enterprise. Just a couple samples of such comments:
I am so pleased to be able to contribute to this important project. … The moon landings made it seem that anything was possible. To say I was fascinated would be an understatement, and I spent many hours gazing up at the sky, and at the map of the moon on my bedroom wall. … And to this day I still have the feeling that all things are possible. Now, onward to Mars!"
"Thank you for letting me be part of this project. I was born a year before the moon landing, and it's wonderful to be able to support such a wonderful project. I have lived in a world where we haven't set foot on the moon, and one where we have. I prefer the latter, and preserving the suit is paramount, in my opinion. Thank you again!"
Democratic communities that are going to endure must preserve their past. Of course, most important to preserve are the ideals that inspired their founders. But the artifacts that embody their great successes, like America’s space program, should be preserved too. So, it’s encouraging to see this democratic effort to preserve these spacesuits take flight.