Home The Washington Diplomat March 2009

Smithsonian Secretary:'We Don't Want to Be Someone's Attic'

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G. Wayne Clough, the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, is determined to show Washington and the world that his organization is not just a custodian of such intriguing artifacts as Apple’s first personal computer, the Hope Diamond and the command module from Apollo 11. He’s trying to rebuild the Smithsonian’s reputation as a cutting-edge research powerhouse with global reach — and ensure that the institution doesn’t become a relic like the millions it houses in its esteemed collection.

“This is a very dynamic, very vibrant institution. We’re growing, we’re evolving. We don’t want to be staid. We don’t want to be someone’s attic,” he said in an interview with The Washington Diplomat at his office in the Smithsonian Castle.

“We’re at the cutting edge of science. We’re discovering new planets. We’ve just birthed a wonderful baby gorilla. We’ve worked with China to expand the panda preserve. We’re looking at climate change and biodiversity issues. We’re very much an intellectual institution,” Clough said. “Our collections are not in storage. They’re scientific, research tools.”

Warm and engaging, Clough has a strong scientific background to make the most of those tools. A civil engineer, he previously served as president of Georgia Tech for nearly 14 years. Clough, 67, was formally installed as the 12th secretary of the Smithsonian in January 2009 after six months on the job. His mandate as the institution’s chief executive officer nothing less than the world’s biggest museum complex.

The Smithsonian was established in 1846 with funds from James Smithson, a British scientist who left his estate to the United States to found “an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.”

Headquartered in Washington, the Smithsonian is now the world’s largest museum complex and a major nexus of research. It’s a sprawling system that includes 19 museums and art galleries, from the National Museum of Natural History to the Freer Gallery of Art to the National Air and Space Museum, the most visited museum in the world. It also commands the National Zoo, a number of research centers, a 20-branch library system with more than 50,000 rare books, along with myriad exhibition halls, observatories, laboratories, field stations, scientific expeditions and performing arts events such as the annual Folklife Festival on the National Mall.

In addition, the Smithsonian is home to an incredible collection that contains about 137 million objects, including moon rocks, meteors, the Star-Spangled Banner, Samuel Morse’s telegraph, Thomas Edison’s light bulb, Lewis and Clark’s compass, the Wright Brothers’ first plane and astronaut John H. Glenn Jr.’s Mercury spacecraft “Friendship 7.”

Today, the Smithsonian has more than 6,000 employees and an annual budget of almost class="import-text">2009March.G. Wayne Clough.txt billion, about 70 percent of which comes from the federal government. Admission to all Smithsonian museums is free, and there were about 25 million visitors to the museums and National Zoo last year.

Clough said that although it was conceived primarily as a science-based institution, the Smithsonian has greatly expanded its original interests to include history, arts and culture.

A scientist and academic administrator, Clough has undergraduate and graduate degrees in civil engineering from Georgia Tech and a doctorate in civil engineering from the University of California at Berkeley. Although happy and challenged as president of Georgia Tech, Clough was intrigued when approached about the Smithsonian job, but he was initially concerned whether his training would fit the institution’s expanded focus.

“My first reaction was, ‘I’m not an arts and museum guy.’ But then I started reading more about the Smithsonian and got some calls. I realized that the Smithsonian is a science-based institution and has a tremendous range of science-based activities that are international. It has operations of some kind in 96 countries,” he said. “I also realized that some of the things I’ve learned in my life were relevant to the Smithsonian job. Running a large, complicated university is in many ways like leading this institution. It is complex, the revenue streams are diverse, there are a lot of stakeholders. I felt some of my skill sets were applicable.”

In fact, Clough is widely credited with transforming the Georgia Institute of Technology into one of the top public universities in the United States during his tenure as president from 1994 to 2008. Under his leadership, annual research expenditures at Georgia Tech increased from 2 million to 3 million, student enrollment jumped from 13,000 to more than 18,000, and research and education programs were opened in France, Ireland, Singapore and China.

While bolstering Georgia Tech’s reputation for science and engineering, he also notably championed the humanities. Clough established two endowed chairs in poetry, expanded the music department, and encouraged the development of interdisciplinary degrees that combined technology with the liberal arts. A skilled fundraiser, he also led two capital campaigns that raised more than class="import-text">2009March.G. Wayne Clough.txt.5 billion.

In addition, Clough has taught at Stanford and Duke universities, served as a dean at Virginia Tech, and was a provost at the University of Washington.

An expert on innovation and higher education policy, Clough has published more than 130 papers and six book chapters on engineering topics. He was featured in a chapter of Thomas Friedman’s “The World is Flat,” where he was depicted as a creative leader in education reform, successful at bridging the worlds of technology and liberal arts.

The Smithsonian’s Board of Regents, which elected Clough to the secretary position in March 2008, is certainly hoping he brings those qualities to the institution, which has lost its luster in recent years with ailing infrastructure and management problems, including charges of excessive personal spending by previous Secretary Lawrence Small. Roger Sant, chairman of the Board of Regents, said Clough was chosen for the job because of his “unique combination of academic achievement, talent, leadership skill and experience in public service, science, management and development.”

Looking to the future, Clough outlined three areas in which the Smithsonian should play a leading role. The first is the Smithsonian’s “broad and deep educational mission.”

“My personal passion is education. We can do so much to help youngsters get interested in science. We can do so much to help people understand their culture,” he said.

To that end, Clough is pushing for the Smithsonian to embrace technologies and online advances such as blogs, twitter, YouTube, Wikipedia, podcasts and Web cams to reach new audiences.

“We need to make our collections, scholars and other resources accessible worldwide by providing additional platforms and vehicles for educating and inspiring large audiences. It is not acceptable for us to share only 1 percent of our 137 million specimens and artifacts at an age when the Internet has made it possible to share them all,” said Clough, who recently initiated a “Smithsonian 2.0” weekend forum between curators and cyber gurus to digitize the institution’s holdings and expand its Web presence.

Clough also wants the Smithsonian to assume a leadership role in one of the central challenges of the 21st century: finding solutions to the climate change problem and developing creative ways to protect biodiversity. “There is no doubt that rising global temperatures have created changes in glaciers, oceans and coral reefs affecting far-away coastlines, flora, fauna, and people,” he said.

Clough praised Smithsonian research for helping to place climate change in a scientific and historical perspective and identifying potential mitigation strategies and human adaptations. Going forward, he wants the institution to explain and communicate the complex science of climate change and demonstrate its commitment to sustainability by the example of its own museums and facilities. (While at Georgia Tech, Clough completed a building program of more than class="import-text">2009March.G. Wayne Clough.txt billion that incorporated sustainable design.)

Finally, the Smithsonian should play a role in promoting American identity and diversity, Clough said, arguing that as the United States becomes a more complicated society, it will be important to foster a sense of cohesion and national purpose based on a common historical and cultural tradition. “We want to clarify what America means to our own citizens as well as those around the world,” he said.

For the Smithsonian to respond to these great challenges, Clough believes it needs to embrace new technology and communication tools, repair and upgrade its physical plant, expand its sources of funding, become more entrepreneurial, and sharpen its focus.

Creating and sharing knowledge must remain the core mission of the Smithsonian, he stressed. “It is now the turn of our generation to build on the work of those who have gone before us and ensure this institution remains a great resource to our nation and the world,” he said.

“We must be innovative, disciplined, focused, and more self-reliant than in the past. We should not be satisfied with simply being large. If we cannot do something within the framework of excellence, we must ask if it is worth doing,” he added.

But above all, Clough is convinced that the institution he now runs — which is more than a century and a half old — can be a valuable resource to Americans and to others across the world.

“This is not the time to diminish our aspirations. We are at a transformative point in our culture. The Smithsonian is into the new era, but has not fully adapted to it. The challenge is for the Smithsonian to enter the new era and be fully prepared to take part in it and to be a leader,” he said.

“I want people to approach this as an institution for the ages. Our job is to pass it on to the next generation in good shape. The Smithsonian should be here a thousand years from now. This is a national treasure.”

About the Author

John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat

Last Edited on July 8, 2014