Crowd-Funded Research in Archaeology

Just yesterday, a friend of mine asked me what I thought about crowd-funded archaeological projects and sent me a link to a recently funded project on Kickstarter to support excavation in Nicaragua. A quick search at Kickstarter and another crowd funding site, Indiegogo, revealed quite a few other archaeological projects looking to raise funds for their work. For those unfamiliar with the internets, the way these crowd-funding sites work is that the fundraiser asks for a certain amount of money over a set amount of time (usually 1-2 months). Funders donate based on certain “rewards” which, for these kinds of projects, range from hearty thanks to t-shirts, reports, photos and prints, and for particularly large donors (depending the ask and the site), trips to the site and guided tours. Typically, it would seem crowd-funded research support has a student component to it and in some cases, it is focused on an individual who is seeking funding to go to do field work.

On a related note, this past summer, the Greek Ministry of Culture issued a directive banning “archaeological tourism”. By this they referred to the practice of well-heeled donors contributing money to projects in order to come and do archaeological fieldwork for some time under the supervision of a project. These individuals were classed as “volunteers” and had no formal archaeological training. To be blunt, they were there as a reward for their contribution to the project. It is worth noting that a Greek project brought this to the attention of the Ministry of Culture.

Doing my best Jack Weinstein imitation (and it’s a rather poor one, at that), I began to think about whether crowdfunding like this is a good idea for academic research. 

On the one hand, it is clear that funding for basic humanities research, particularly on the scale of archaeological work, is drying up both in the U.S. and abroad, and academics are becoming increasingly creative to find funds for their work. More than that, archaeological fieldwork has always attracted wealthy patrons. In the 19th century, for example, donors might receive artifacts from an ongoing excavation. Today, donors receive t-shirts, newsletters, and “insider information”. Some prominent sites, like Nemea, have non-profit organizations established to fund the excavation, conservation, and reconstruction (!) of the site. These groups organize events, et c. I tend to associate the most formal manifestations of this work with longstanding practices in fundraising at academic institutions. Universities, research institutions, and professional associations raise money to advance their priorities. Generally speaking, these groups are in fundraising for the long haul, and see it as inseparable from a kind of relationship building that at least ostensibly works to broker a shared vision for the institution with its supporters. There is compromise between the interests of supporters and the goals of the institution with the institution providing a substantial check on the more fickle attitudes of funders. 

Crowdfunding, on the other hand, strikes me as something different. Rather than brokering the complex relationship between donors and an institution, crowdfunding asks for one-time, money to support a single project. More than that, limited time allowed to raise funds, actually discourages, to some existent, a persistent engagement with the project. For the donor (and I have supported quite a few and quite a range of projects on Kickstarter), there is less of a feeling of commitment to the cause. In fact, I’m relieved after my donation that I won’t be pelted with emails for the rest of my life asking me to “affirm my friendship” (as a famous Ohio State capital campaign once asked). The basic structure of these asks, in fact, encourages donors to see them as a gift for a very specific reward. Many companies have come to using crowd-funding platforms as a way to presell devices and generate capital prior to their investment in manufacturing (or even final development).

In other words, crowdfunding archaeology prioritizes a kind of immediate gratification at the expense of relationship building. At worst, it encourages the public to see archaeological research in parallel with a single funding event. This evokes an Indiana Jones kind of field work model where you find an old map, kill some Nazis, and turn the finds over to “Top men”.  This overlooks the complications of conservation, longterm storage, and study of finds.

I don’t mean to discourage archaeologists or other scholars from availing themselves to the potential of crowdfunding for their work, but it does make me wonder what kinds of expectations and precedents this sets for the non-academic public. By offering a reward for support, are we encouraging, in spirit, the kind of archaeological tourism that the Greek government has condemned (if not specifically, at least in sprit).  

In other words, does a crowdfunding model for research encourage a view of our research as product rather than process?     

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