Coen van Galen on his crowdfunding campaign and publicity

Coen van Galen
As long as you keep control over what information comes out, you can gain a lot from that publicity
Coen van Galen, historicus

Historian Coen van Galen started crowdfunding to finance his research project. There was a lot of enthusiasm for that action and it got him media attention. A few years later, the media still know how to find him.

At a certain point, funding for a new research project, which Coen van Galen and his colleagues wanted to use to ensure that the Surinamese slave registers would become public, failed to materialise. 'Eventually, as a stopgap measure, we started a crowdfunding campaign,' the historian explains. 'That turned out to be a golden move. It attracted a lot of media attention, which in turn generated additional funding, for example from the Prince Bernhard Culture Fund.'

'The time was clearly ripe for more attention to the slavery past. The zwartepietdiscussion was again widely held and there was a need for more inclusive historiography. Many people thought our research was important, so there was a kind of snowball effect of messages about the campaign and people telling each other about the action. Ultimately, I think that campaign is the reason I am still in academia.'

Stage fright

I found my way to the media quite easily. Before I started my PhD project in 2010, I had worked as a journalist at the regional broadcaster for a few years, so I already had contacts and knew a bit about what kind of stories media like to hear. I had also used this knowledge during my PhD, by telling a lot about that research in the media. For that, I even won the Hermesdorf Talent Prize in 2016.

Also during the slavery project, I received more and more invitations from editors to come and talk about the registers and the research. But to then actually say something on radio or television was still a step for me: I suffered from stage fright. I prepared myself very well, so that I knew exactly what to say. That helped enormously and I still do it that way.

In control

As long as you remain in control of what information comes out, you can gain a lot from publicity. I often say to my PhD students: you have to be the driver of your own bus and create space for yourself. Of course, in a way that suits you: not everyone needs to be on television. Some are good at dealing with large audiences, others are better at teaching or working behind the scenes.

But if you do enjoy it, I would definitely try to get on radio or television. Once you have been in the national media, editors often keep following you. As recently as 2021, for instance, the NOS Journaal shared our call for volunteers to help map the Surinamese population between 1830 and 1950. A lot of applications came in for that. Our research owes a lot to all that attention.'