As the overseer of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, Wayne Clough has a catbird’s seat on the world. But, as a luncheon speech he gave at the Rotary Club of Atlanta on April 22 revealed, he remains grounded in his native Georgia and a staunch patriot.
The Smithsonian’s reach is unmatched. Dr. Clough, the Douglas, Ga., native and president of the Georgia Institute of Technology from 1994-2008, oversees 19 museums as different as the National Portrait Gallery and the National Zoo that collectively attract 30 million visitors a year in comparison to, let’s say, the Louvre in Paris that last year had only 12 million.
There also are nine science research centers and 177 affiliated museums with eight in the state of Georgia. Smithsonian experts roam the globe on a multitude of mostly scientific assignments.
And they have brought back over the years quantities of things that Dr. Clough calls “objects” – namely 137 million objects ranging from mosquitoes to the retired space shuttle Discovery, NASA’s fleet leader that is now on permanent display.
He also seemed to be particularly proud of the acquisition of the 4.7 billion-year-old Allende meteorite from Mexico, older than the earth, which has joined the Smithsonian’s collection of more than 45,000 younger meteorite specimens.
In view of all the objects, not to mention the masses of archival records, the museum has been regarded as the nation’s “attic,” an appellation that he has sought to obliterate since assuming his current position in 2008.
A new strategic plan has been his means of forcing the institution that dates back to 1847 into the 21st century – a goal that he pursues as ferociously as he pursues funds to replace those that the government has sequestered from his multi-million dollar budget.
In an effort to become a model 21st century institution, Dr. Clough has initiated a massive digitizing project that is focused on 14 million of the objects out of the 137 million.
“How many photographs of mosquitoes do you really need?” he asked rhetorically, drawing a laugh from the Rotarians. But despite the enormity of the task, he added, “It is essential to our country and to the world that we maintain these collections.”
The digital outreach transcends borders, he added. Yet while espousing a global objective, saying — “The Smithsonian is a leader in the world’s scientific community,” — he remained the fervent patriot. “Our American soul is captured in these collections.”
Even more futuristic than his devotion to the digitization of the institution’s artifacts is his promotion of 3D printing technology with which the Smithsonian recreated a five million-year-old whale fossil. Other 3D creations include Benedict Arnold’s gunboat the Philadelphia which he sank in Lake Champlain to block British advances during the American Revolution and a statue of Thomas Jefferson, the third U.S. president.
Under his leadership, the Smithsonian’s mission is anchored in education and he aims at providing universal access to its educational materials.
With this end in mind, he is promoting “citizen scientists,” and citing the digital app Leafsnap. This free application, which helps identify tree species from photographs of their leaves, is the first in a series of electronic field guides being developed to demonstrate the use of the mobile apps.
Other examples of his educational initiatives include the website www.seriouslyamazing.com where the Smithsonian asks and answers questions about science, art, history and culture, and promotes cross-generational learning.
He also is proud of the Peabody journalism award from the University of Georgia that the Smithsonian’s web channel, www.smithsonianchannel.com, won for its documentary titled, “MLK: The Assassination Tapes.”
Alert to the uses of social media, he hasn’t abandoned traditional teaching methods either, and pointed to the 2,000 lesson plans the institution has developed for classroom teaching and the program promoting science, technology, engineering and mathematics education in classrooms in North Carolina, Texas and New Mexico.
He also seeks to encourage ingenuity and praised the Smithsonian’s Ingenuity Awards, citing the example of 15-year-old high school student Jack Andraka who won one last year for his work in exploring diagnostic tools for early detection of pancreatic cancer.
Dr. Clough said that Jack told him he was inspired to learn by a visit to institution’s Natural History Museum as a 12-year-old.
And it’s this sort of accessibility that he wants to conserve, keeping the institution free to the public. Although the institution faces a $45 million sequestration budget cut, he said the costs of putting an entry fee in place didn’t make sense, nor would keeping out potential visitors who wouldn’t be able to pay.
While he has traveled the globe, it was clear that his ties to Georgia remain strong and many of the Rotarians raised their hands when asked how many were graduates of Georgia Tech where the $85 million Undergraduate Learning Commons is named in his honor.
He also serves with other former Atlantans on the various Smithsonian staffs including Dennis Kelly, director of the National Zoo who was president and CEO of Zoo Atlanta 2003-09, and Johnnetta Cole, president of Spelman College from 1987-97, who is the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art.
When Mr. Kelly suggested that a carousel be placed at the institution’s National Zoological Park with models of exotic and endangered species on which to ride, the money was raised with help from Georgia Tech graduates, including John Huffman, CEO of Pepco Energy Services Inc. who donated the solar panels that power its engine.
In view that Dr. Clough, Mr. Kelly and Mr. Huffman, among other donors, are all graduates of Georgia Tech, it is of little surprise that one of the animals on the carousel is a yellow jacket.