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Days at the Museum
Comments () | Published July 1, 2009
Owen Wilson and other stars walked the red carpet at the Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian premiere at Air and Space in May. Photograph by Chris Leaman

Clough’s suite of offices in the red-sandstone Castle building is still decorated with art chosen by his predecessor, Larry Small, the majority of it paintings from the federal Public Works of Art program. Clough asked the museums under his purview to send him a list of what else was available.

“I tend to be a little eclectic,” he says. He’d like more of a mix—some classical, some contemporary—as well as art that reflects the ethnic makeup of the country. He’d also like a little more sculpture, preferably with a technological twist. Maybe something that moves, such as a Calder mobile.

The office he has in mind reflects his vision for the institution. Clough wants to make the Smithsonian relevant to today’s world. Fossil exhibits, for example, should shed light on contemporary issues such as climate change, he says. And he wants to see the Smithsonian’s research on issues like climate change and biodiversity reach political leaders and the public and shape efforts around the globe to protect the planet.

He wants exhibits and programs designed with ethnic diversity in mind in the hope that they’ll strengthen the cohesiveness of the nation and even help buttress alliances around the world.

And, not surprising for an engineer, he’s passionate about using technology to expand the reach of the Smithsonian.

During his interview for the Smithsonian job, Clough told the board that when high-school students look at colleges, as many get their information about Georgia Tech from a friend’s cell-phone image as from the school’s carefully planned presentation. The conversation is in many ways out of our hands, he told the regents, so we need to be brokering that conversation.

“He was already thinking about how that relates to the Smithsonian,” Stonesifer says, “and how, with the resources we have, we can be more central to the American conversation. We were taken with that.”

Once here, Clough let it be known that the Smithsonian would be embracing the digital world and using it to reach beyond the 25 million people who visit the museums each year.

Says Kurin: “Here’s Wayne Clough coming from Georgia Tech, where he’s spent the last 14 years with a bunch of 19- and 20-year-olds who all have their PDAs and iPods, and he asks a really good question: How does the Smithsonian use contemporary digital technology to reach those young people? How are museums going to be relevant in the 21st century? He challenged us right off the bat.”

Clough invited several dozen digital VIPs from places like Facebook, MySpace, and Flickr for a Smithsonian 2.0 conference in January. He asked them what they would do with all of the Smithsonian’s stuff. This spring he went to San Francisco to meet with a group of “new millennials.”

“We discussed what the Smithsonian could be to them,” says Clough, “how to touch a generation that doesn’t read newspapers as much and doesn’t go to museums as much.”

One of the secrets, he says, is whetting their appetites with behind-the-scenes peeks such as the ones he gets when he goes into the vault at the Museum of Natural History to see a newly acquired alexandrite gem or watches the wing of a World War II German plane being prepared for exhibit or talks to feather expert Carla Dove about her work with the Federal Aviation Administration and US Air Force on “bird strikes,” plane accidents caused by birds. One spring morning, Clough watched Dove open Ziploc bags filled with pieces of the engine of the US Airways jet that crashed into the Hudson River in January. “It’s still a little bit smelly,” Dove said of the engine fragments, which contained enough bird remains to allow her to identify the species.

To give others the same kind of experience, Clough is looking to YouTube. He’d like to see videos of live animal births at the zoo’s breeding center, airplanes being assembled at the Air and Space Museum, a painting being restored at the American Art Museum.

And though he knows it’s a big undertaking, he’s aiming to digitize the entire collection of 137 million artifacts, specimens, and works of art—fewer than 1 percent of which are on display—and create an “intellectual swarm” where the public can not only tap into the Smithsonian’s sites but also add information to them Wikipedia style. He’s met with executives from Google and included several million dollars for digitization in this year’s budget.

One of his favorite projects is the Encyclopedia of Life, an effort Samper has been working on with other natural-history institutions and research facilities to create Web pages for every one of the 1.8 million known species of life. So far, they’re up to 170,000.

Clough is wired himself. He has a Kindle and a new BlackBerry Curve and occasionally sends “tweets,” as he did at the May premiere of Night at the Museum at the Air and Space Museum. (“Heard that Robin Williams is outside and the crowd is going nuts.” . . . “Amelia Earhart . . . I mean Amy Adams is here.” . . . “After party is cool.”)

While employees generally applaud Clough’s efforts to heighten the Smithsonian’s presence in the digital world, some say they hope the same attention and resources will go to the exhibitions that people come to Washington to see.

“I’m not alone in saying that no matter how nice a Web site we have, it’s no match for seeing the Wright Flyer or the Hope diamond or the First Ladies’ gowns,” says Ted Maxwell, a senior scientist at the Air and Space Museum. “I hope we make sure that doesn’t get lost in Smithsonian 2.0, whatever the heck that is.”

Says a longtime curator at the Museum of American History: “Lots of people can do educational programs. There’s something special about museums, and we shouldn’t lose sight of that.”

Clough says his vision is not to diminish “the great edifices on the Mall.” But, he says, “we can change the way they operate. We can touch people in a different way.” 

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