"We often say, with great pride, that we are the world's largest museum and research complex," Wayne Clough says of the Smithsonian Institution. "Then I think, 'Well, so what GM?' It used to be the world's greatest carmaker. That doesn't guarantee you anything. We have to be very good at what we do."
Seven months into his job as the Smithsonian's secretary, or chief executive, Clough heads an organization that runs 19 museums -- including the National Museum of African American History and Culture, expected to open in 2015 -- nine research centers and the National Zoo, and conducts research projects in more than 90 countries.
It's a challenge to administer in the best of times. Clough, 67, took the helm in the wake of a raging controversy. His predecessor, Lawrence M. Small, resigned in March 2007 amid charges of flagrant spending and irresponsible management. Then came the most serious economic downturn since the Great Depression.
But Clough (pronounced cluff) seems to have found a comfort zone at the 163-year-old institution. Tall, trim and crisply groomed, he exudes confidence in a low-key way. Recently in Los Angeles to meet with Smithsonian associates and supporters, he took a break to talk about the revitalization of his new professional home.
Founded in 1846 by the bequest of English scientist James Smithson, the Smithsonian began as a science-based institution and expanded into history, arts and culture. It wasn't an obvious fit for Clough, and the thought of working there didn't cross his mind until about a year ago. Educated at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, he became its president after earning a doctorate in civil engineering at UC Berkeley and teaching there and at Stanford.
"I had spent 13 years at Georgia Tech and accomplished a lot of what I intended to do," he says. "I was all set to take a sabbatical and work on my poetry writing and golf game when a bunch of my sneaky friends said, 'Hey, there's this job and we think you would be good at it.' My first response was, 'Are you crazy? I love museums, art and history, but I'm an engineer. I'm not sure the community would want me.' Then I did some reading and talking, and realized that the Smithsonian is so complex, nobody could have the complement of skills required to lead it."
Clough assumed his new position July 1 and immediately acted on his theory "that I just need to get out and listen to people." That meant regaining the goodwill of lawmakers who vote on the federal government's support of the institution -- currently about 65% of the $1-billion annual operating budget, he says. But the biggest task was to get acquainted with the Smithsonian and launch a strategic plan.
An institution under stress, it has lost 600 positions over the last 10 years. But it still has 5,800 staff members and 6,500 volunteers.
He has already visited 45 museums, research and education centers and natural preserves affiliated with the Smithsonian, with more to go. And he has overseen a survey of 7,000 people -- including his entire staff, members of Congress and university scholars -- 220 of whom have been interviewed.
To find a focus and set priorities, it's necessary to determine "what the Smithsonian does that's unique and how it all connects," he says. "That's what I have been trying to put my arms around. Our goal was to have an inclusive process and one that was creative, so that everyone who has a stake in the Smithsonian could have their say. We expect to do a lot more collaborations with universities in the future. Nobody has enough money today. The big issues that we are going to tackle will require working together."
Part of what makes the Smithsonian distinctive is its embrace of history, arts, culture and science. It also has an internationally recognized brand. But maintaining a level of excellence and shaping a vision relevant to a rapidly changing world is daunting.
"The Smithsonian at heart is an educational institution, but it's been doing all this with one arm behind its back," Clough says. "It had to have somebody show up or deliver a traveling exhibition and hope that somebody would show up. If we enable our curators to take part in the process, we can digitize our collection of 137 million objects [including artworks, artifacts and scientific specimens] in an informative way that people can use."
The key, he thinks, is to use the collections to tell stories about important issues. "The story of American ingenuity, for example, cuts across disciplines," he says. "Telling that story is something we can do that nobody else can."