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Days at the Museum
The Smithsonian has its name in lights on movie marquees this summer. Here on the Mall, its new leader has spent the last year looking over his 137 million props and getting ready for his close-up. By Susan Baer
Comments () | Published July 1, 2009
Wayne Clough has tried to visit every corner of the Smithsonian in the past year, from the bird lab at the National Museum of Natural History to the top of the Andes, where the institution has a giant telescope. Photograph by Chris Leaman

Wayne Clough’s first appearance before a congressional committee as head of the Smithsonian was to tamp down a potential firestorm. A lighting specialist at the National Air and Space Museum claimed that asbestos in the walls there—known to Smithsonian managers for 17 years but not communicated to some employees—had caused his lung disease.

Before the House hearing began this spring, a museum official noticed that the Air and Space employee, Richard Pullman, was among the spectators and pointed him out to Clough.

With an easy Southern manner and a feel for human relations that had eluded his predecessor, Clough walked over to Pullman, extended his hand, and introduced himself. “I’m sorry for your injury,” the tall, white-bearded executive said. “You’re one of ours.”

Pullman was grateful for the brief exchange—and surprised. It was the first time he’d heard any words of compassion from one of the higher-ups, he said.

Noting that he’d recently taken his wife, children, and grandson to Air and Space, Clough—pronounced “cluff”—went on to assure the members of Congress that the museum was safe and that new policies and procedures for getting information to the Smithsonian’s 6,000 employees and 6,000 volunteers were now in place.

It fell to Representative Dan Lungren, a California Republican, to state the obvious: The problems the panel was quizzing Clough about predated his taking the Smithsonian reins last July, a year after secretary Lawrence Small was forced to turn over the key to the Smithsonian Castle.

“Mr. Secretary,” Lungren told the 12th secretary of the Smithsonian, “you’re like the fellow following the elephant in the circus cleaning up, and then we blame you for what you’re cleaning up.”

In almost a year on the job, Wayne Clough, 67, former president of Georgia Tech, has tried to clean up the chaos at the Smithsonian and restore some of the luster of its iconic name.

Scarred from scandals involving extravagant personal spending and questionable management by Small, hefty salaries awarded to some of his business-unit hires, and weak oversight by its board of regents, the Smithsonian was so tarnished by 2007 that one lawmaker called it “an endangered institution,” while another decried its “culture of secrecy” and threatened to freeze its budget.

Inside, curators, scientists, and scholars—the backbone of the 163-year-old institution—chafed at Small’s “imperial and insular” style, as a review panel termed it, and his focus on business ventures over the core mission to “increase and diffuse knowledge.”

If Clough has done nothing else, he’s brought a sense of calm to the place, reassuring staff and stakeholders, Congress and visitors, that the days of drama and controversy are behind them.

Scientists and curators have been heartened by Clough’s talk of scholarship and creativity, Smithsonian hallmarks that many believe have deteriorated as badly as some of the old buildings. “There are a lot of demoralized people,” says Ellen Hughes, a 44-year veteran of the Smithsonian and curator emeritus, “but I think it’s turning around.”

Promising a new culture of openness, Clough sends e-mails to the staff, holds town-hall meetings, has news articles about the museum world sent to curators, and in May took the internal newsletter, the Torch, online so employees could post their own notes. He’s spent the last year touring every corner of the complex of 19 museums, nine research centers, and the National Zoo, picking the brains of beetle experts one day, an astrophysicist the next, and traveling from Chile to Kenya to see Smithsonian projects up close.

Now, despite a trying economy and a $2.5-billion backlog in repairs to the aging buildings, Clough hopes to lead the institution through a period of transformation in the spirit of his most celebrated predecessor, S. Dillon Ripley, who saw the Smithsonian through its greatest growth phase, from 1964 to 1984. For starters, Clough wants to erase the Smithsonian’s image as a musty repository of fossils and relics—he hates the term “nation’s attic”—and, largely through technology, make it a vibrant part of 21st-century culture and education.

“This is a unique time for the Smithsonian,” Clough says in his meeting room, which is filled with artifacts such as Charles Lindbergh’s flight helmet and a sea-turtle skull. “It’s a time for renewal. It’s a time for regathering, for rethinking what it means to be the Smithsonian. Dillon Ripley did more than just grow the Smithsonian. He said, ‘Let the Smithsonian sing.’ I think we are at another time now where suddenly the Smithsonian has a chance to truly be a national institution—not just a place waiting for people to come visit our museums. Instead of a set of collections that hardly anybody sees and a group of curators who are behind the walls, we can become a huge educational resource for the nation that we haven’t been before.”

His effort got a glamorous jump-start this spring when the institution starred in the blockbuster film Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian—though the deal with 20th Century Fox was made and the movie shot before Clough’s arrival. “I missed my cameo,” says Clough, a film buff.

But he knows it doesn’t hurt to have the Smithsonian’s name in lights—and on cereal boxes and McDonald’s Happy Meals—and to have Ben Stiller’s character exclaim before millions of moviegoers: “This is the Smithsonian we’re talking about here!” 

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Posted at 05:00 PM/ET, 07/01/2009 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles