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First Person Singular: Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough

Sunday, January 23, 2011; W03

I have always felt that whenever I took a job, I had to have a higher motivation of some kind. To make money or even to "give back" is not enough; it's got to be something bigger and overarching. Most of my life was spent as a teacher and researcher. So to me, my higher motivation is the educational potential of this institution, which I think is enormous -- and, interestingly, underutilized. Here we have these huge collections, and people only see 1 percent at any given time. And then we have all these fascinating people behind these walls and in the field: beetle experts, planet hunters. It's pretty astounding. And while 30 million visits are made here each year, which is a huge number of people going through our buildings, there are still millions of people, even in the United States, that don't ever come here. And they pay taxes; they help support us.

I grew up in a very rural area [Douglas, Ga.]. We didn't travel a lot, and I didn't know this place existed, other than maybe by name. And that's a shame. I want to share what we have with people in communities like the one that I grew up in. And to me, technology is a huge breakthrough element to push that knowledge out, to take the Smithsonian from the Mall. I was up with some of our anthropologists in Alaska, with the Yup'ik Eskimos on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Strait, just 40 miles from Russia. We met with the elders in a schoolhouse, and the teachers in that school had gotten some of our new Internet-delivered programs and said, "Please, keep giving them to us." So while there's nothing that can duplicate the impact of interacting with a real object, my belief is that [looking at it online] does whet your appetite. So that someday, maybe the kid will come here and see the real thing.

That interaction with a real object is a pretty profound experience. I had the opportunity, for example, to hold the Jefferson Bible in my hands; it was almost electric. This is the Bible that he put moral teachings into in Hebrew, Latin, Greek and English, taken from the great books. It puts you in his mind-set a little bit: what he was thinking at that time in his life, as he was building the University of Virginia and thinking hard about what kind of knowledge is going to be necessary, what kind of person is going to be necessary, to sustain the republic in a new era. It's a great responsibility, these treasured documents, these collections. You've got to think that you're going to have them forever, because you would like somebody else to hold that Bible a thousand years from now.

-- Interview by KK Ottesen

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