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Days at the Museum
Comments () | Published July 1, 2009
Behind the scenes at Natural History, feather expert Carla Dove shows Clough engine fragments from the US Airways flight that landed in the Hudson River in January. Dove gets bird samples from about 4,500 plane incidents a year. From the bits of feather on engine fragments, she can identify a bird’s species, which helps aviation officials in bird-prevention efforts at airports. Photograph by Chris Leaman

If Clough isn’t as colorful as the legendary Ripley, who is still deified by longtime employees, his gravitas and steadiness—a persona one curator described as “kind of vanilla”—may be what the institution needs at the moment.

In contrast to what was known as Larry Small’s “Dom Pérignon lifestyle” (chartered jets, chauffeurs, lavish home furnishings, all at Smithsonian expense), Clough walks to work from the Southwest DC townhouse where he lives with his wife, Anne. He usually flies coach on trips to court donors or visit Smithsonian outposts. He hops on the Circulator bus to get to his favorite Penn Quarter restaurants, attends many of the Smithsonian’s lectures and concerts, and likes to walk through the museums on weekends when, he says, “it’s nice not to be the secretary.”

Employees found it refreshing that at last year’s Folklife Festival, during Clough’s first few days on the job, the new secretary, dressed in a Smithsonian polo shirt and khakis, consented to a Bhutanese priest’s request to bless him.

“It’s not necessarily the easiest thing to say to the secretary, ‘We’re going to take you out and these Bhutanese priests are going to light incense and you’re going to have to do this thing with yak butter and be in a procession,’ ” says Richard Kurin, undersecretary for history, art, and culture. “But he was very good-natured about it—and wasn’t overdressed, either.”

Clough is said to be a devotee of management guru Jim Collins and his 2001 business bestseller, Good to Great. According to Collins, who later wrote an accompanying monograph for the nonprofit sector, leaders of successful organizations have “a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will,” are more “plow horse than show horse,” and use technology to accelerate momentum. Clough talks so often about Collins’s book, says one employee, that many at the Smithsonian have made a point of reading it.

At Georgia Tech, Clough expanded the curriculum and scope of research and turned the school into one of the nation’s top ten public universities. He caught the attention of the Smithsonian regents, says the new board chair, Patricia Stonesifer, because “he was someone who had changed the trajectory of an organization, and we needed someone who could take us through a trajectory change.”

Clough’s appointment returned the Smithsonian to the stewardship of a scientist, the tradition throughout the institution’s history except when businessman Small and his predecessor, law professor and university chancellor I. Michael Heyman, were at the helm. With six universities on Clough’s résumé—he studied civil engineering at Georgia Tech, where he later became president; earned a PhD at the University of California, Berkeley; taught at Duke, Stanford, and Virginia Tech; and was provost at the University of Washington—he quickly grasped the culture of a large, intellectually driven institution in the public eye, says Kurin.

A geotechnical engineer who reads and writes poetry, quotes Faulkner, and likes indie films and the symphony, Clough is also a good fit with the Smithsonian’s catholic sensibilities. “He’s not a nerd,” says Regent Roger Sant, “but he can speak with nerds.”

He also can speak with wealthy donors and artists and members of Congress, who appropriate the funds that make up 70 percent of the institution’s $1-billion budget.

With Stonesifer—the former Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation head who became chair of the board of regents in January—Clough has brought the Smithsonian back into Congress’s good graces, at least for the moment. The institution received $25 million in the economic-stimulus package this year—a show of confidence—and a 7-percent increase in funding over last year’s.

Even Smithsonian watchdog senator Charles Grassley, who’s been highly critical of the institution’s management, says he’s encouraged by what he’s seen. “His heart’s in the right place,” Grassley says. “I’m skeptical until there’s a track record, but he’s got a good track record at this point.”

Smithsonian officials and staff note that much of the righting of the ship—and lifting of morale—was done by Cristián Samper, the young Museum of Natural History director tapped to be acting secretary in the wake of Small’s exit. Samper moved quickly to reform the governance and oversight of the institution, create a code of ethics, shore up a faltering fellowship program for young scholars, open up communication, and, most important to the staff, shift the focus back to education and scholarship.

“That’s what the institution was clamoring for,” says Samper, 43, who returned to his position as director of the Museum of Natural History last summer. “In many ways, I just became a spokesman for what people here believe in.”

Clough has built on Samper’s work, spending much of the last year getting to know the institution and preparing a strategic plan, to be unveiled to the regents in September, for the next five to seven years.

Clough brought in consulting firms, including Booz Allen Hamilton, to get input from the staff; employees hope the plan will lay out a vision for the sprawling institution.

“The real problem at the Smithsonian is not related to Larry Small,” says one official. “It’s a serious identity problem. The Smithsonian is 19 museums, and it’s also the zoo and its breeding center in Front Royal, it’s the environmental-research center in Edgewater, it’s the astrophysics center at Harvard, it’s the tropical-research center in Panama, the folklife center that does all the recordings. It’s this wonderful jumble. But how is it all the Smithsonian?”

Samper says every Smithsonian leader has struggled with that question—especially as more and more museums have been added to the empire.

“One of the things that’s great for us at Natural History is the opportunity to be part of the Smithsonian,” says Samper. “The question is how do we collaborate with American History? How do we collaborate with the Hirshhorn? With American Indian? Because that’s what makes it different. It’s not a stand-alone museum. You’re part of this broader thing, for better or for worse.” 

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