News & Politics

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.

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!” 

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.” 

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.” 

He has a like-minded partner in Stonesifer, who was a senior official at Microsoft before leading the Gates Foundation for the last decade.

Clough, who grew up in the tobacco-farming town of Douglas, Georgia, didn’t get to visit museums as a child. Stonesifer, an Indianapolis native who was one of nine children, visited the Smithsonian only once as a kid.

“That’s one of the reasons I care greatly about how we take the Smithsonian across the country,” says Stonesifer, “to the child in Indiana who wants to explore the American presidency or the single mother in Seattle who wants to understand more about oceans. It’s nice for the Smithsonian to belong to the American people, but [having it] in a lock box is not so useful.”

It’s a debate so familiar that it played out in the Night at the Museum sequel:

“People love this stuff,” former night guard Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) tells a museum director, referring to artifacts that are crated up and about to be replaced with holograms.

“People love what’s next,” the museum director replies.

Roger Sant, then chair of the Smithsonian board of regents, remembers the weekend of March 23, 2007, vividly. On Friday night, Lawrence Small submitted his resignation. Saturday, the board held a conference call—led by chief justice John Roberts, chancellor of the Smithsonian—to decide whether most of them should also resign, having been asleep at the wheel while Small was running up Smithsonian expenses for cleaning his chandelier and servicing his back-yard pool. By Sunday, they had decided to appoint Cristián Samper acting secretary—and to stay.

Recalls Sant: “While we were very willing to admit we’d missed a lot of things we should have seen, to a person everyone said it’s our job to fix it. The board could have fractured. I could have been the one blamed. In fact, it came together.”

Stonesifer, a board member since 2001, helped pull it together, handing out a 28-page booklet on exceptional boards and principles of governance to the regents, who include the Vice President of the United States, the chief justice, three senators, three House members, and nine independent members who are generally high-powered executives. “We had to go from baseline to great in a short period of time,” she says.

With Samper’s help, the board drafted a list of 25 recommendations for new governing regulations, most of which have been implemented. Senior executives no longer would be permitted to serve on boards of for-profit companies. Travel and entertainment expenses incurred by the secretary and senior executives would be reviewed by the chief financial officer. The secretary’s salary—Clough’s is $490,000, compared with Small’s $916,000—would be in line with those in the nonprofit sector and befitting the institution’s public-trust status. The board would meet four times a year instead of three, and at least one meeting would be public.

In September, Stonesifer stepped down from the top post at the Gates Foundation, and in January she started her term as Smithsonian board chair. Through her reputation as a champion of global public-health efforts and as a respected businesswoman, she has helped restore confidence in the regents.

“She’s a very strong, clear-thinking person,” says philanthropist Ed Scott, cofounder of the Center for Global Development.

A down-to-earth woman whose unpretentious manner belies her position and the fortune she made at Microsoft, Stonesifer, 52, now commutes between Washington and Seattle, where she still works as an adviser to the Gates Foundation. She spends one to two months at a time here and recently bought a condo at the Ritz-Carlton Residences in DC’s West End with her husband, journalist Michael Kinsley. She has an office in the Castle, meets with Clough weekly, by phone if not in person, and has opened a lot of donor doors.

She and Kinsley met when the Washington writer went to Seattle to edit Slate, the online magazine started by Microsoft. They’re known as a lively couple—“two brainiacs,” a friend says—who love to slug it out over issues. “I still claim we have the best breakfast-table conversation,” says Stonesifer, who has two grown children from a previous marriage and writes an advice column on doing good with daughter Sandy for Slate.

Her Smithsonian position, she says, has allowed the couple to add curators and scientists to the software engineers, journalists, and public-health advocates they socialize with. Also a new activity: raising money. She’s been more accustomed to giving it away.

She held a dinner party in Seattle recently to introduce potential donors to Lonnie Bunch, director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The latest Smithsonian museum, likely the last to be located on the Mall, is scheduled for a 2012 groundbreaking. “If you told me I’d consider those sorts of things fun, I would have been surprised,” says Stonesifer.

She notes that she’s worked with mainly two donors in the past. But Warren Buffett and Bill Gates aren’t your typical donors.

While many Smithsonian staffers hoped Cristián Samper would keep the top job, Clough had one key asset besides being an outsider—a track record as a fundraiser. In 14 years as president of Georgia Tech, he raised $1.6 billion in private donations.

Asked how much of his new job is about raising money, he laughs and says: “One hundred percent, I suppose.” 

With about two-thirds of its money coming from the government, the Smithsonian is in better shape than most cultural institutions, but the economy has taken a toll. There have been layoffs and salary freezes in the past year. Revenue from gift shops and Smithsonian books and magazines is down, as is the institution’s endowment—almost 30 percent from a year and a half ago, to about $756 million.

“The 900-pound gorilla is the economy,” says Earl A. “Rusty” Powell III, director of the National Gallery of Art, another museum funded in large part by the federal government.

Powell says he has told Clough, “Be very grateful we’re in Washington.” Despite the economic worries, attendance is up at the Smithsonian museums and the National Gallery, possibly because they’re free to visitors. The Smithsonian’s Natural History and Air and Space museums were the most visited museums in the country last year, with about 7 million visitors each, followed by the National Gallery of Art, with about 5 million visitors.

One of the most pressing issues hanging over the Smithsonian is repair of its aging buildings, estimated to cost $2.5 billion. At the Air and Space Museum, for instance, scientist Ted Maxwell wears a jacket in the winter—the heat hasn’t worked in his office for ten years, he says. But raising money to fix a heating-and-cooling system is harder than finding donors for a new exhibit.

Employees have been heartened by Clough’s attention to the Arts and Industries Building, the 1881 red-brick Victorian structure that’s been shuttered since 2004 because of leaks and structural problems. The building, next door to the Castle, will get $4.6 million from the stimulus package for repairs, and Clough has set up committees to study possible uses for the building, the original home of the Smithsonian collection.

Smithsonian curators contend that the scholarly base of the institution has crumbled as much as the physical plant. The loss of about 600 positions over the last ten years has led to “orphan” collections that have no curators, fewer programs to interpret the institution’s work and exhibits, and concern that the knowledge and expertise of a generation of scholars will not be passed on.

“There’s no point in fixing the buildings if they’re going to be empty inside,” says Samper. “It’s not just the collections. It’s having the people to look after the collections. It’s doing educational programs. It’s taking advantage of new technologies. We’re behind the curve.”

Marc Pachter, former National Portrait Gallery director, says the Smithsonian’s programming and scholarly infrastructure flourished in the postwar era, particularly during Ripley’s stewardship, and made the institution more than just a caretaker of objects. “Those are the intangible parts of the Smithsonian,” says Pachter, “not less important but intangible.”

But the Smithsonian’s reality is that its federal subsidy has remained largely flat over the last 20 years while it has piled up more and more facilities to operate and maintain, more functions, as well as salary increases. “It’s like middle-class squeeze at the national institutional level,” says Thomas Lovejoy, a renowned biologist and former Smithsonian official. “In the end, Congress has got to bear a major piece of that responsibility.”

Samper believes that aside from making a better case to Congress, the institution will have to be more aggressive—and at the same time careful—exploring corporate sponsorships and other public/private partnerships.

“I think there are ways to make those partnerships, but you have to do them thoughtfully,” he says, noting that the Smithsonian has gotten into trouble in this area before. In 2007, the American Petroleum Institute rescinded a $5-million gift for the Natural History Museum’s oceans initiative after Smithsonian regents had misgivings about whether oil-company money was appropriate for a marine-science exhibit. And there have been incidents where major donors tried to exert influence on exhibitions.

“The problem is if we want to do a better job with our exhibits, do more interesting research, do more educational programs, it’s going to take more resources,” says Samper. “So then how do we do it?”

To address some of the building and programming needs, Smithsonian officials are preparing to launch the first institution-wide capital campaign.

For now, Clough is traveling the country introducing himself to donors, including those who might help the Smithsonian raise half of the $500 million—with Congress supplying the other half—for the new African-American museum.

“Fundraising is a contact sport,” Clough says. “Somebody has to know you, they have to let you in their living room, they have to trust you, and they have to feel like you have integrity and can represent the institution with appropriate ideas. So a lot of it is establishing that trust base.”

An avid outdoorsman, he says he’ll do “whatever it takes” to get to know potential contributors. In Atlanta, that often meant quail hunting or fishing or playing golf with wealthy Georgia Tech alumni.

In Washington, it often means dinner parties, where he brings in reinforcement. His wife, Anne, he says, is a fundraising pro and the extrovert in the family.

He’s noticed that at Washington dinner parties, counter to custom in the South, spouses are not seated together. “We realized pretty quick that she has to carry her end of the Smithsonian conversation while I carry mine,” says Clough. “We’re always doing a little business.”

Dillon Ripley stories still echo throughout the Smithsonian: how he’d pick up the phone and call a curator to chat, how he lay down on a museum floor to show guards how to deal with possible demonstrators, how he insisted that priceless musical instruments be taken out of their cases and played, how he’d ride on the carousel he had installed across from the Castle. He also was a presence around town.

Thomas Lovejoy says the financial burdens facing the Smithsonian today require another such dynamic leader. “It’s going to take a real partnership with Congress in a way that’s been hard to achieve in the last 20 years but which did exist before,” he says. “In the Ripley era, the secretary had the right personality and outlook and he managed to be part of the Washington scene in a very natural way, so everybody was buying into the excitement of the Smithsonian.” Lovejoy says Clough appears to fit the bill: “He’s outgoing. At the same time, he’s low-key in a good kind of way. He will get out of the Castle.”

“They’ve plugged right in,” Rusty Powell says of the Cloughs. “This is not a man who sits in an ivory tower.”

Roger Sant and others have introduced the newcomer—the Smithsonian’s first secretary from the South, whom Sant calls Mr. Atlanta—to the Washington scene. Sant has taken Clough to the Alibi Club, the elite men’s club, and to National Gallery of Art and National Symphony galas, and hosted a dinner party to introduce the Cloughs to other cultural leaders.

Clough hit it off particularly well with James Billington, longtime Librarian of Congress. The two talked about moving their organizations into the digital world and, more generally, the history of the cultural and intellectual life of Washington. Billington says he’s been impressed by Clough’s combination of excitement about the challenges of his new job and his “relaxed, good-humored approach to it.”

Clough says he’d been thinking of taking a sabbatical when he was approached about the Smithsonian job. His first thought: “Are they nuts? I’m not sure I’m the right person.” But as he started looking into the institution and realizing the scope of the enterprise—he now calls it “the most visible best-kept secret in the world”—he felt that no one since Leonardo da Vinci or Thomas Jefferson would have had the breadth of experience to match the Smithsonian, so why not him?

“I felt I had a lot of the portfolio that was needed,” Clough says. “Nobody could have it all.” His wife thought it would be an adventure.

His new boss, chief justice Roberts, took him around the Supreme Court one day last year and showed him where everybody sat. He pointed to one chair, Clough recalls, and said, “This guy over here is the smartest guy on the Supreme Court and the most productive. Justice Stevens. He’s 88.”

Clough says he doesn’t plan to be Smithsonian secretary until he’s 88, though most members of his family have worked well past retirement age, he notes. But he says he wants to seize this time in the Smithsonian’s history and build a foundation for a new era.

“He’s a guy who will try to do the right thing,” says Kurin. “However long he’s here, I think he’ll prove to have played a major role in setting a path for the Smithsonian for the next generation.” 

Susan Baer

Susan Baer is a former Washingtonian editor and Baltimore Sun correspondent who has also written for CNN and the Washington Post. She can be reached at [email protected].