Caretaker for a Collection as Big as Life
With its estimated 137 million objects, artifacts, works of art and natural specimens, the Smithsonian Institution is known to some as “the nation’s attic.” On the contrary, says Secretary G. Wayne Clough (Ph.D.’69 CEE), the world’s largest museum and research complex is a vibrant, “happening” place.
“We care about much more than just the objects or the facts,” Clough says. “Much of our search is for meaning based on connections and relationships. These relationships between humans and the tangible objects in our immediate world of everyday life, over time, constitute our identity and make our culture what it is.”
A geo-engineer and educator with a 40-year academic career that included appointments at Duke, Stanford and Virginia Tech and 14 years as president of Georgia Tech, Clough (pronounced “cluff”) took the helm as Smithsonian secretary in July 2008. Only the 12th person to hold the institution’s highest administrative post in its 163-year history, he initially had misgivings when some friends suggested he submit his name for the job. At the time, he says, he thought the only thing he knew about museums was that he liked them. But after delving into the Smithsonian’s history, he learned of its strong base in science and research and that, in fact, many former secretaries had been scientists.
“Finally I realized that maybe Leonardo da Vinci might be the only person who had all the skills you need to run the Smithsonian,” he adds. Relying on his engineering background, his skills and experience as a university president, his hunger for learning and his joy of being around the arts, Clough says he is now using all these transferable skills to build not structures but institutions. And his Berkeley education had a significant role in that.
“My engineering experience at Berkeley helped me approach complex problems and sort through variables to decide which were important and which were not,” he says. “With such an outstanding faculty and students, you have a chance to see excellence at the highest caliber, and that helps you see what you want to aspire to.”
The vast Smithsonian complex comprises 19 museums and galleries, nine research centers, the National Zoological Park and 20 libraries. Among its holdings are historical treasures like the Wright Flyer, the original “Star-Spangled Banner,” ancient Paleolithic remains from our earliest ancestors and specimens from the Allende meteorite, the world's oldest known natural specimen dating back 4.5 billion years. Endowed by wealthy Englishman James Smithson and established in 1846 by an act of Congress “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge,” the Smithsonian hosts about 25 million visitors a year in its museums in and around Washington, D.C ., and New York City.
But the vastness doesn’t faze Clough, who returned to the Bay Area in August to speak at the Long Now Foundation and share his vision for how the Smithsonian brings meaning to our past, present and long-term future. Throughout his talk, he balanced boyish enthusiasm (exclaiming “That’s exciting!” when describing the Giant Magellan Telescope, under construction in Chile, which will provide new insight into the Big Bang origins of the universe) with the practical curiosity of an engineer (“A really good ice core will take you back 800,000 years.”).
As president of Georgia Tech, Clough broke records for fundraising, beefed up student enrollment and added creative pursuits like music, poetry and team sports to the high-tech curriculum. He has earned scores of awards, including the 2004 Berkeley Engineering Distinguished Engineering Alumnus Award (now the BEIA) and the American Society of Civil Engineering Norman Medal (twice) and currently serves on the National Science Board.
His broad vision for the Smithsonian is to engage it in what he calls “the great issues of the day,” through activities like K–12 outreach, to boost science education, and programs like Global Earth Observatories, to monitor the role of forest ecosystems in climate change. In his ambitious effort to digitize the entire collection, he considers questions both small and large, from how to photograph a 3-D object, to how to share the Smithsonian’s riches with the entire family of man. Still, he considers his greatest accomplishment his own family; he and his wife, Anne, have two children, Eliza and Matthew, three grandchildren and multiple pets.
“Of course,” Clough adds, “I include in that family my 34 Ph.D. students.” For an audio file of Clough’s Long Now talk, go to www.longnow.org/projects/seminars/.