Drafting a Future
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
During his getting-acquainted tour of the Smithsonian, G. Wayne Clough, the institution's new secretary, was stopped in his tracks by a group of researchers poring over pages of "endangered" languages.
Clough sat there in the reading room of the National Anthropological Archives in Suitland, one of the many outposts of the Smithsonian empire, and heard how experts at the institution have been collecting languages since before the Smithsonian was the Smithsonian.
This group handed him some cards. He undid the white ribbon and found slips with words from the Poosepatuck Nation. Clough recalled he was a little flabbergasted when Robert Leopold told him these were 19th-century copies of a set that Thomas Jefferson had written on a trip to Long Island in 1791. And Clough (pronounced "cluff") said he was even more impressed when he visited a laboratory and saw that 8,000 pages of Cherokee had been digitized and shared with North Carolina tribe members who wanted to teach their children the language.
Then there was the visit with the keepers of the worms, conducting a DNA project of 5.8 million specimens, in which Clough saw how materials stored for decades now play into the hot topic of biodiversity.
This stop was one of many during his almost three months at the helm that showed what makes the Smithsonian unique -- it has all this stuff-- and invigorated his own thinking about how to connect the institution's past and its holdings to what is needed in the future.
"My job is to put my arms around all of this" and define the 21st-century Smithsonian, said Clough, sitting in his shirt sleeves in a conference room, talking about those whirlwind first weeks.
Clough, 66, a tall, slender son of the South, is a civil engineer who loves soil, earthquakes and all kinds of infrastructure. He relaxes at the theater, playing golf and hunting quail. He's had to move fast to learn what the vast enterprise of the Smithsonian means to the visitors, the curators, the local community and the major bankrollers, as well as Congress, approver of 70 percent of the institution's nearly $1 billion budget.
The stakes are high for a man who has had 39 successful years at educational institutions. And the stakes are perhaps higher for the Smithsonian, which has recently suffered from administrative mismanagement, congressional outrage and low staff morale.
For more than 160 years, the Smithsonian had been a quiet powerhouse in Washington's cultural life and the larger museum world. But three years ago Congress started complaining about secrecy at the Smithsonian, including a contract to start a television programming network -- an arrangement that raised questions about access to the museum's materials. Then there were the ballooning salaries of executives. Lawrence M. Small, a banker who was appointed the 11th secretary in 2000, resigned in 2007 after investigations found he was using Smithsonian money for home repairs and luxuries. Further questions about unauthorized expenses and outside income led to more resignations. External reports criticized Smithsonian management and the upkeep of its visitor-heavy buildings. Last year, when Congress was pushing for a shake-up of the Smithsonian, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) called the museum "an endangered institution."
As a result of the scandals, the Smithsonian Board of Regents, which includes the chief justice of the United States, began reforms of its governance.
The Smithsonian has deep bench strength, with a staff of nearly 6,000, many of whom are internationally recognized scientists and curators with one-of-a-kind specialties. An interim secretary worked to restore confidence as the board searched for a new leader. In March the regents selected Clough, a museum outsider but a man with strong science credentials, experience in leading complex institutions and a proven record for raising huge sums of money.
Clough accepted a $490,000 annual salary, with no housing allowance, compared with the $551,186, and a home, that he received as president at Georgia Tech -- and far less than the former secretary's $916,000.