WASHINGTON, DC, JANUARY 31: Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough speaks during a press conference at the Smithsonian Institution on January 30, 2011, in Washington, D.C. (MATT MCCLAIN/The Washington Post)

G. Wayne Clough, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, will retire in October 2014, according to a surprise announcement by the Smithsonian on Wednesday. Clough, 71, served as president of the Smithsonian for six years. Before his tenure at the Smithsonian, he was president of the Georgia Institute of Technology for 14 years.

In an interview, Clough specified that he is “not retiring, but stepping down” and will continue to work on Smithsonian priorities for the next year, including its fundraising initiatives, digitization efforts and the facilities revitalization of the South Campus, where the Smithsonian’s oldest buildings stand on the Mall.

“Quite a few initiatives are well underway at the Smithsonian, and the next phase is going to require a consistent effort,” Clough said. “I’d have to stay four or five years, and that’s a lot of time for me [considering] where I am in my life. There are still things I want to do, and, of course, I feel an obligation to my spouse, who has been through all these different career moves with me.”

Clough said he hopes to pursue writing after he steps down next year or go back to an academic field that would allow more direct contact with students. Such a move would be a stark contrast to the grueling demands of being Smithsonian secretary. The Smithsonian is the largest museum complex in the world, and the secretary presides over a $1 billion annual budget, 19 museums, 6,400 employees, 6,200 volunteers, projects in 130 countries and a collection of more than 137 million items, which includes all the living animals at the National Zoo. In recent years, the position has become even more expansive, with an emphasis on digital outreach via hundreds of Web sites and mobile apps, and a greater need for private fundraising during an era of government austerity.

In an e-mail to Smithsonian staff members Wednesday, Clough said he was fortunate to serve as the 12th secretary of the Smithsonian. “My goal was to help this remarkable institution prepare itself for a new and revitalized role in the 21st century and to ensure that when my work was done, an orderly transition to new leadership could occur,” he wrote.

Smithsonian Undersecretary Richard Kurin said that Clough’s timing was optimal and that he is leaving the Smithsonian on a high note: “Wayne is a team player, and the Smithsonian is stronger because of his leadership,” Kurin said. “He wanted to ensure there would be a smooth and orderly transition for his successor.”

During Clough’s tenure, the Smithsonian broke fundraising records, raising $233 million last year. He has also presided over a wave of institutional change, hiring leaders for more than 10 Smithsonian museums and centers, including the National Zoo, the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of African Art and the National Museum of Natural History. He oversaw the groundbreaking of the $500 million National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is scheduled to open on the Mall in 2015. Clough remarked that the museum’s creation and groundbreaking were among the highlights of his tenure.

“I grew up in the segregated South, and I know that we need this museum,” Clough said. “Having the groundbreaking with the president and with Lonnie Bunch was a key day.”

Lonnie G. Bunch, director of the museum, praised Clough’s dedication:

“Wayne came in and basically recognized from the very beginning that his legacy was tied to the creation of this museum. He made sure it was the number one priority of the institution. I am sorry to see him go, but not for a selfish reason. More that the opening of this museum will be a transformative kind of thing. . . . I wanted him to be here when we cut the ribbon.”

News of his departure elicited surprise and praise from many in the museum community. Kirk Johnson, director of the National Museum of Natural History, called Clough “a superb leader,” and Rep. Candice S. Miller (R-Mich.), who chairs the House committee that oversees the Smithsonian’s workings, said that Clough “brought the institution’s operations into the 21st century.”

Ford Bell, president of the American Alliance of Museums, says Clough’s tenure has been marked by accessibility, a rare trait for directors of such large institutions.

“Not only was he approachable to those of us in the museum field, but he made accessibility a priority with digitization, turning our nation’s treasures into truly international treasures,” Bell said.

An engineer and technology enthusiast, Clough pushed Smithsonian museums to embrace digital and mobile platforms as part of their core mission and outreach efforts. Clough recently released a 77-page e-book on digitization of museum collections, and he is pushing the Smithsonian to digitize 14 million pieces in its collection with the help of volunteers and private partners.

Still, Clough faced sharp criticism from those who thought that top officials were too involved in the affairs of individual museums. This year, Clough and Kurin decided against proceeding with the Hirshhorn Museum’s ambitious Seasonal Inflatable Structure, known as the “Bubble,” which faced fundraising shortfalls. Hirshhorn director Richard Koshalek and a number of board members resigned over the controversy.

In 2010, Clough pulled a controversial video from the National Portrait Gallery’s
” exhibition examining same-sex intimacy after religious groups objected to a four-minute video that contained images of ants crawling on a crucifix. The removal of the video sparked an outcry from gay activists.

“In some profound sense, his tenure represents one of the last links to an older model of the way museums relate to the lesbian and gay queer community,” said Jonathan Katz, an independent curator who worked on “Hide/Seek.” “I hope they look for someone who hopes to represent the broadest demographic possible and who won’t be held hostage to reactionaries in Congress.”

Clough is widely credited with rebranding and remaking the image of the Smithsonian administration, which had been roiled by financial mismanagement under previous secretary Lawrence Small. Following an investigation by The Washington Post, the Smithsonian removed Small and other leaders. Clough was selected to revitalize the institution, and he arguably championed a more academic tone, focusing on biodiversity, world cultures, the universe and the American experience. He developed the branding campaign “Seriously Amazing,” championing the educational workings of the complex.

A committee formed by the Smithsonian Board of Regents will conduct an international search for a new secretary. Clough had some thoughts on the characteristics needed in his successor:

“You need a really good sense of humor,” he said with a laugh. “You need an optimist who can deal with a lot of moving parts, who can keep their hands on 100 exhibitions and deal with the diversity and the cadre leaders. You have to be willing to walk a tightrope without a safety net.”