Reviving the Smithsonian

New Leader in His PR Push

Posted September 9, 2008 at 4:14pm

Since taking over as secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, G. Wayne Clough has taken 19 trips to Capitol Hill to meet with lawmakers. He’s started thinking about fundraising, in part for the $2.5 billion maintenance backlog that he’s inherited. And he’s been working on ideas for the future of the institution.

But he also has the enthusiasm of a child as he talks about the fascinating things that Smithsonian researchers are studying and the trips he might take.

“I’d love to go see our telescopes in Chile,” he said. “I’m not sure I’d go for a dive,” he adds, laughing, “but I’d love to go to Antarctica.”

Analyzing budgets, studying rare artifacts and finding meteorites on Antarctica is all in the job description for Clough, 66, who came to the Smithsonian in July after serving 14 years as president of the Georgia Institute of Technology.

But the post also comes with tough challenges, mostly notably regaining the public’s trust. Clough’s predecessor, Lawrence Small, resigned in 2007 amid allegations that he misused funds for extravagant trips and expenses. Several other officials also stepped down in the scandal’s aftermath.

Then there’s the monumental task of preserving the Smithsonian’s 19 museums, nine research centers and array of eclectic exhibits. The Smithsonian is faced with $2.5 billion backlog of maintenance work — and Congress wants the institution to foot at least some of that bill.

In an interview at his second-floor office overlooking the National Mall in the Smithsonian Castle, Clough said he is sure that both can be done. In fact, he is pretty confident about being able to tackle the maintenance backlog. On taking the job, he said he found that “the situation is better than it might have seemed.”

The real challenge is charting a future course for the 162-year-old institution, Clough said.

“I don’t want anybody to look back and say, ‘Where were those people in 2008?’” he said. He wants to make an impact — the positive kind.

Whatever direction the Smithsonian takes, Congress will surely be a part of it. Congress is charged with administering the Smithsonian via its Board of Regents, which includes six Members and nine citizens (whom Members appoint).

In the aftermath of the Small scandal, the Board of Regents took on greater oversight of the Smithsonian’s day-to-day activities. Combine that with the fact that in recent years Congress has funded about 70 percent of the Smithsonian’s budget, and it’s easy to see the important role Members will have in upcoming years.

Knowing all this, Clough said he views Members as important partners in the governance of the Smithsonian. In the weeks before the August recess, he took 19 trips to Capitol Hill to meet with Members, updating them on the Smithsonian’s state and discussing future activities.

Clough also met with Smithsonian researchers, workers and curators to get a sense of just how people feel about the place. What he found from Members and Smithsonian staffers is that everyone wants to move past last year’s scandal.

“Folks are excited,” he said. “They really think we’re poised on a new era.”

That new era will involve reaching out to the millions of Americans who haven’t taken advantage of the Smithsonian’s research capabilities, Clough said.

It won’t just involve new buildings or exhibits — it will require the use of technologies such as the Internet to reach folks from cities to towns to farms. The institution also must undertake a better public outreach effort, which could include using the Smithsonian’s cable network, Clough said.

There are things that can be done in Washington, D.C., as well, Clough said. The Smithsonian will take an active role in the effort to revitalize the National Mall, working with developers to clean things up and making D.C. a friendlier place to visit.

“To the average citizen, they don’t know where the Mall starts and the Smithsonian begins,” Clough said. “We’re going to take an active part in collaborating.”

It’s also important to correctly frame the Smithsonian’s brand name, “so people understand it’s not just about museums,” he said. Many Americans don’t realize that they can use the Smithsonian to conduct research, he said.

“Every day there is a surprise. There’s always something amazing going on,” he said. “It can also be understood by someone who’s 90 years old or 9 years old. That’s not easy to do.”

Equally as amazing to Clough is how the Smithsonian is able to keep its doors open. “What business does anybody know of that’s open every day of the year but Christmas, but charges no admission?” he said.

Still, there is that multibillion-dollar backlog to deal with. But Clough believes that the Smithsonian’s 10-year plan for tackling the backlog — putting $250 million a year into projects, $150 million for revitalization and $100 million for maintenance — is pretty solid.

Perhaps the bigger challenge is finding the money to fund the effort. Clough, who raised $1.5 billion in two capital campaigns at Georgia Tech, said he is confident that it’s a challenge that can be faced. He has already met with donors out West and will head to New York to meet with others in upcoming days.

“The Smithsonian is an institution that is a sound institution,” Clough said. “The people who work here are passionate. We are going to be good stewards … we are going to take care of business.”

In the meantime, Clough said he would continue to be amazed by all that fascinating stuff he has been charged with overseeing — even if he didn’t realize how just how interesting it was before he began his job.

For instance: “I didn’t realize how much stamps reflect the history of this country,” Clough said. “But they do.”