1. Opinion

Other voices: Smithsonian's crowdsourcing success

Published Jul. 28, 2015

Houston, the Smithsonian has a problem — or at least it did. Its National Air and Space Museum wanted to display Neil Armstrong's Apollo 11 spacesuit in July 2019 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, but traditional fundraising methods had not proved adequate to support the project. In response, a museum complex founded in the 19th century took a 21st-century tack: It launched an online campaign to crowdfund the endeavor. The Smithsonian's campaign, which met its goal with ease, was a forward-thinking way to sweep the dust out of "America's attic." We hope to see more like it.

The "Reboot the Suit" Kickstarter met its month-long $500,000 goal within a week. Now it is aiming for $200,000 more. At the same time, the District of Columbia's delegate in the U.S. House, Eleanor Holmes Norton, is fighting for a bill to change the Smithsonian's governance structure, also to enable increased fundraising. The proposed legislation, now before a House committee, would remove public officials such as the vice president and the chief justice from the Smithsonian's board of regents and replace them with private citizens whose positions don't impede them from soliciting donations. The bill is not new; Norton introduces some version of it every Congress. It always fails.

It's clear that the Smithsonian needs money. About 70 percent of its funding comes from federal appropriations, but that goes mostly toward salaries, construction and maintenance. For the rest, the Smithsonian relies on business and philanthropy, and lately those sources have not been enough. The institution has to find a way to fill the budget gap, and online crowdfunding looks like the most viable option given the perennial opposition to Norton's bill and the remarkable success of "Reboot the Suit." It is also the most exciting.

Norton's proposed changes to the Smithsonian board would put wealthy citizens at the institute's helm and encourage them to tap other rich individuals for funds. Such a move would probably yield a more generous cash flow. But there is something more compelling about a campaign that galvanizes people from all over the country to contribute all sorts of amounts — from just $1 to more than $10,000. And, while Norton says her bill will "modernize" the Smithsonian's fundraising infrastructure, what is more modern than a campaign that harnesses the power of the Internet to do what old methods could not?

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.