Crowdfunding an exhibit

Librarians, archivists, and museum curators are constantly having to get creative with services and programming in the face of frequent budget cuts. Exhibits and displays – key parts of any cultural institution – can take up a lot of space in an already tight budget. Grants, sponsors, and donations certainly help, but what other avenues for funding should information professionals consider?

At the Carl von Ossietzky University Oldenburg in Germany, ten graduate students in the Museum Studies program are using a newer method of raising money for their exhibit: crowdfunding. Crowdfunding, as defined by Mashable.com, is “the collective effort of individuals who network and pool their resources, usually via the Internet, to support efforts initiated by other people or organizations.” Crowdfunding is often used to support disaster relief efforts, political campaigns, startup companies, musical artists, and product development. If people are willing to spend money on these initiatives, would they be willing to fund an exhibit, program, or service at a cultural institution?

My friend Helen, one of those students, thought it was worth a chance to see if people would spend their own money to help fund an exhibit. As part of her program, she and her fellow students have to put on a major exhibition. They create a concept, acquire objects, plan the exhibit, fund it, and put it on at a local venue. Normally, the groups “rely pretty heavily on grants, and we sent out grant applications as well,” Helen says, “but I wanted to try crowdfunding, too.” She pointed out that crowdfunding in itself is a form of publicity. “Someone might view the profile and decide not to donate, but be interested enough to come see the exhibit. It’s also a way to reach people we wouldn’t otherwise have come in contact with, especially people outside of Germany.”

I was interested to find out more about their project and how they were using crowdfunding, and she was nice enough to answer a few questions for me. First, though, here is the video they put together about their exhibit for their crowdfunding page:

“Was übrig bleibt” : Eine Ausstellung / “What remains” : An Exhibit

As they explain in their video, their exhibit is about “what remains” – what people leave behind. On their site they state, “Objects can never be seen as separate from their users/owners. Despite the flood of products and items available in our society, people tend to attach meaning to certain objects and not others. We ask: why are objects left behind, in what situations and by which people? Is an object imbued with memory and saved, or is it garbage and gets thrown away?” [emphasis theirs] I asked Helen about this theme, crowdfunding, and what people should take away from their exhibit.

How did you come up with the theme for your exhibit?

We were given total freedom by our professors to pick our own theme. We started by brainstorming vague ideas, like love, time, and Heimat, and then voted and narrowed down our ideas. We ended up with three ideas: “was übrig bleibt,” Love/Sick, and sleep. We discussed and discussed and discussed because as a group, that is literally what we do the best. Then we voted and it ended up being “was übrig bleibt”. At that point we all wrote a page or two defining the word “übrig” and went from there. We spent a lot of time talking about the places these things end up in, and kept coming back to flea markets, so that’s where we started building our collection.

Why did you decide to crowdfund the exhibit?

Without taking too much credit, I brought the idea of crowdfunding to the table. My dad always thought it was a really cool concept and he had helped a friend of our family’s set up a project on Kickstarter to fund this new sewing thing she was doing. The groups that had done the project before us (every year the people in the program do a big exhibit) had always relied pretty heavily on grants, and we sent out grant applications as well, but I wanted to try crowdfunding, too. On the one hand, it’s publicity. Someone might view the profile and decide not to donate, but be interested enough to come see the exhibit. It’s also a way to reach people we wouldn’t otherwise have come in contact with, especially people outside of Germany. In the beginning, the idea was to also use our crowdfunding site to find objects for the exhibit.

Who are you marketing this funding initiative towards, and how?

The boring answer is that we marketed it towards anyone who might be interested and had some money to spare. However, the important thing for me was to reach an international crowd, which is why we went with Sponsume.com over Kickstarter. With Sponsume, donors can donate in any currency. We also made our profile bilingual and put English subtitles on our video.

What issues have you run into with your funding process?

The main issue that we have right now is that our crowdfunding venture is not really working out the way we wanted it to. We thought at the beginning that yes, people we know/are related to would donate money, but that for the most part we would use crowdfunding to reach people who don’t know us (people from around the world who find the project interesting). So far, however, our donors are only people we know: family, friends, neighbors, teachers, etc. While we are extremely thankful for their donations, we don’t want to rely solely on them. We tried to get the word out over our website, our project Facebook page and our private Facebook pages. Additionally we were featured on the Sponsume front page for about a week. This hasn’t reached the people we are trying to reach. Now, with about two weeks left to go, we aren’t even at our halfway point. I’ve been posting on museum forums (yes, such things exist), to get the word out among museum-interested people. We remain hopeful. In the end crowdfunding doesn’t cost you anything, even in the worst-case scenario that you have to use all the money raised to cover the rewards. Despite the problems, we will come away with some money, and the experience has still been very positive.

What has been your favorite part of the process so far?

I personally really enjoyed making the video for the crowdfunding website. It is something that is required for the profile, but it is also just a great way to quickly introduce people to the project. Having a presence on YouTube is never a bad idea. I’m sure everyone in the group would pick a different favorite part, but for me the exciting thing is the realization of our ideas. We started the project such a long time ago, we came up with and then tossed out so many ideas that the phase we are in right now (figuring out how to build the exhibit furniture, how everything is going to be arranged, etc.) is both exciting and rewarding.

What is the most interesting item you’ve found, and what’s its story?

That is an extremely difficult question. All of our objects have a unique story and say different things about the theme. We have a vase that survived the bombing of Germany in World War II. We have a baby’s rattle, where the story behind it is that the mother went to the hospital thinking that she had appendicitis and then found out she was having a baby. We have a carafe that is the only object left over from a family restaurant that went out of business. Once again, ask anyone in the group and they will pick something else.

What do you want people to take away from this exhibit?

What a question. We want people to learn to look at their objects in a new way, as carriers of memory, as pieces of their personal histories. But we also want the public to participate in the exhibit. We are leaving spaces in the exhibit that can be spontaneously developed by visitors.

For those of us who won’t be able to visit the exhibit, is there a way for us to see the items on display?

I am sure we will publish pictures of the exhibit on our website, and might even make another video. We are in the process of writing a catalog, and though not every object will be individually presented, the themes in the exhibit will be expanded upon, in essays, prose, poems, photos, etc. You can also follow our exhibit on Facebook, tumblr, and our Sponsume page.


So what do you think of using crowdfunding for an exhibit? Do you think there are any potential problems with using crowdfunded money? How would you target your community/audience, and get them interested? How would you “compensate” them for their support? I’m interested to see if more exhibits, programs, and services are funded in part (or wholly) by crowdfunding in the future!

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