Wayne Clough, the Secretary of the Smithsonian. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

After Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough visited an Abraham Lincoln exhibit at the National Museum of American History in 2009, he had one question for curator Harry R. Rubenstein.

What stuff did he leave out?

Rubenstein showed him a handball the president had played with — an item now encased in a display outside Clough’s office.

“His sweat’s in that ball,” Clough says of Lincoln. “He was a very competitive guy, he was a big guy and he didn’t like to lose. It connects you personally. That humanizes him.”

“Curators get to pick the things that people see, but it’s really fun for everybody to pick their own stuff,” Clough says. “I love our curators, and I love their point of view, but I want to have a point of view.”

Clough wants the public to have that power, too, and that has fueled his drive to digitize all 138 milion items in the Smithsonian’s collections. “Digitization is democratization,” he says, and that has become a hallmark of his six-year tenure, which ends next month. The 73-year-old Clough is most proud of the technological improvements and programs that extend the reach of the Smithsonian, a network of 19 museums and galleries, a zoo and nine research centers with more than 12,000 employees and volunteers.

When Clough arrived in 2008 — replacing Lawrence M. Small, who resigned under a cloud of accusations about unauthorized expenses — he immediately sought to improve morale, revitalize education and “use digital technology to the hilt.” But he’s had setbacks, including questions from Congress about his own travel expenses. He was criticized for removing a video included in the National Portrait Gallery’s “Hide/Seek” exhibition in 2010; that criticism was later echoed by a panel appointed by the Board of Regents that recommended pieces not be removed from shows that had opened. And he nixed the Hirshhorn’s proposed Seasonal Inflatable Structure, known as “the Bubble,” for financial reasons, saying the museum hadn’t raised enough money to support the project.

But Clough is leaving on a high note, fueled by the recent disclosure that the Smithsonian’s first joint fundraising campaign is already two-thirds of the way toward a $1.5 billion goal. Recently, he talked about the gains he’s made and the work unfinished.

Democracy in action

The Smithsonian asked for the public’s help with digitization, and 4,000 volunteers from around the world have signed on to build a searchable database. In doing so, they have changed the relationship the Smithsonian has with the public.

“We were the Voice of God. We made announcements and that was it. There’s no discussion,” he says. “Now, we’re talking to people, it’s a conversation. You can tell us what you think, and we’ll listen.”

Share, share, share

Smithsonian scientists have long used motion- and sound-sensor cameras in forests around the globe to snap photos of “animals doing what they do,” Clough says. But in recent years, they’ve been posting the photographs online at siwild.si.edu.

“This was a research tool that nobody knew anything about,” he says. “Now, anybody can see them and get excited about it.”

Clough is similarly enthusiastic about the network of robotic telescopes run by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory that individuals can control from their own computers.

“These are the planet hunters, the dark matter people,” he says. “and suddenly a kid from Modesto, Calif., is [working with them]. That’s big.”

Play nice

Can silo be a verb? When Clough says museums are “silo-ed more than universities,” his tone is teasing but his message is serious. “We have eight art museums. Is there something you can do together?” he remembers asking when he arrived.

“We set up a process called an idea fair. It was sort of like speed-dating,” he says. They used grant money — “it’s always good to have a carrot as opposed to a stick” — to provide incentives, and the results are promising: new programs on immigration, climate change, and preserving dying languages, and a planned virtual museum of music.

But, he says his successor, David Skorton, will have to “keep the pressure on.”

“The easiest thing to do is not do it,” he says. “It’s hard to find a colleague in another building and start talking. And maybe it doesn’t pan out.”

College prep

Clough served as president of the Georgia Institute of Technology prior to joining the Smithsonian; Skorton is leaving the presidency of Cornell University for the Smithsonian secretary’s office in July.

“Smithsonian is a lot like a public university. You have many constituents, you have a legislature that doesn’t give you a lot of money but thinks they own you anyway. You have alumni, faculty and students and everybody is very passionate and you can’t make everybody happy at the same time.

“Our educational demographic is different. We educate from this high,” he holds his hand about three feet off the ground, “to people in their 90s.

“And you don’t have these collections. They are a huge responsibility, they represent our nation’s memory and our understanding of the world.

“The good news is I don’t have a football or basketball team. I have enough challenges without that.”

Billion with a ‘B’

The Smithsonian announced last month that it had raised $1 billion of a $1.5 billion national campaign, the first attempt to fundraise in a unified, systematic way.

It wasn’t an easy sell, Clough recalls. “They didn’t trust me, they thought I was a con man,” he says of the museum directors. “I’d get everybody on the wagon, and then I’d look back and a couple of them had jumped off.”

But he prevailed, and he’s confident the Smithsonian will benefit for decades to come. “I tell people this campaign is about the next campaign,” he says. “The Smithsonian should be able to raise $4 billion. We’re raising money with integrity and commitment, and the donor sees that and the next campaign that donor is already sold.”

The national campaign is helping to spread the “love for the institution” like that found in volunteer docents.

“They cry. It’s amazing, I feel like Oprah,” he says when he meets with them. “It’s almost automatic. The story reaches a point where they choke up. Not many institutions can do that to people. We want to share that experience, that this is a place you can love.”

The hunt for Douglas, Ga.

Starting in January, Clough plans to visit all of America’s national parks (a holdover from his first retirement) and to write a book about his quixotic attempt to find traces of his Georgia birthplace among the Smithsonian’s vast collections.

“It started as a whimsical thing to do,” he says. “Douglas is not culturally important, it’s not historically important.” He has found remnants of the rail line, species of wildlife and much more on his scavenger hunt.

“I can do it, because I’m here,” he says. “Once we digitize, you will be able to do it, and you can have a ball.”