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.