Engineering a Smithsonian for the 21st Century

Secretary G. Wayne Clough at Smithsonian Staff Picnic Meeting Archives Staff, 2008.

As the saying goes, "Time flies when you're having a good time," and indeed it seems like yesterday that we met the new Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough at the Staff Picnic in July of 2008.  In some ways, he appeared to fit the mold of the typical Smithsonian Secretary: a very tall man with a Ph.D. But in other ways, he broke the mold – a Southerner? – an engineer? How would someone like that lead the quirky Smithsonian?  Hints of what the future had in store for us could be seen that first day, as he walked around the music and research tents, engaging staff in discussions about what they did at the Institution.  His positive energy and smile were infectious, and I remember thinking, well, maybe he can liven this place up again . . . 

Secretary G. Wayne Clough digging for fossils in Wyoming.

Dr. Clough turned out to be a quick study as he surveyed the Institution and the people who make it tick – our strengths and weaknesses – and he formulated a plan that moved forward simultaneously on several tracks. The first task was daunting – to turn around a negative attitude that had crept across the Smithsonian in the last decade.  He visited units, demonstrated to staff that he genuinely valued the work being done here, and publicly rewarded those with creativity and dedication.  He dug up fossils, learned to work a snow blower, snorkeled in the Caribbean and hiked around the South Pole.  He got to know the Smithsonian in-depth.  And he challenged all of the staff to think positively about the future of the Smithsonian, rather than dwell upon the past.

Secretary G. Wayne Clough Operating Snow Blower during 2010 Snowmaggedon.

For someone who was a graduate student at Berkeley in the 1970s when the computer revolution was taking off and Silicon Valley was coming into existence, the Smithsonian seemed behind the curve in the information technology Dr. Clough was immersed in for his engineering work.  So, his second front was to encourage the expansion of the digitization of our collections, use of digital communications to reach new audiences, and support projects that used information technology in new and creative ways for Smithsonian web 2.0.  Before long, Dr. Clough had the staff digitizing everything in 3D – even mini-Wayne himself!  Today we reach millions of people across the globe and thousands of online volunteers have become part of the Smithsonian family.

Earthquake Damage at the Museum Support Center in 2011.

So what does an engineer do at the Smithsonian?  We quickly took solace in his expertise in earthquake engineering when a quake hit the mid-Atlantic region in 2011, damaging Smithsonian buildings.  A lot of environmental research is conducted across the Smithsonian, but putting that research into practice in our own facilities had not been a priority.  Dr. Clough challenged the facilities staff and they substantially reduced the amount of fossil fuels used and increased the amount of renewable fuel sources.

The Smithsonian is a large and complex organization – so Dr. Clough looked for ways to increase interactions across diverse units.  He brought together a group who distilled Smithsonian interests into the four "Grand Challenges" of Unlocking the Mysteries of the Universe, Understanding and Sustaining a Biodiverse Planet, Valuing World Cultures, and Understanding the American Experience.  And then he actually found funding for collaborative grants! "The Anthropocene" challenged astrophysicists, anthropologists, art historians, cultural historians, botanists, and paleontologists to actually work together on a coherent project. Could they do it? Yes, they did and got us all thinking in new ways, at the same time we got to know coworkers whose work was very different than our own.

Smithsonian Staff Logo at Annual Picnic on Mall in 2010, by Dane Penland.

So it is now time to bid farewell to Dr. Clough, as he returns to his beloved Georgia. I'll be busy for the next couple of years ensuring all his positive accomplishments are properly documented in our historical record.  We'll miss the smile, enthusiasm, and challenges to reach higher every day, but we can build on his legacy to create a truly 21st century Smithsonian!

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