We get so much disturbing and unpleasant news out of the nation’s capital anymore that it’s a delightful treat when something more positive emerges.
After far too many years of neglect and mismanagement, the incomparable Smithsonian Institution may be getting the kind of guidance it needs to prevent further deterioration.
Wayne Clough, 67, is now in his seventh month as the Smithsonian’s chief executive. He heads an organization that operates 19 museums, nine research centers and the National Zoo. The agency conducts research in more than 90 countries.
Clough inherited an entity that not only was battling the same serious economic downturn affecting the entire nation but also was in the wake of a raging controversy. His predecessor, Lawrence M. Small, resigned in March 2007, amid charges of flagrant spending and irresponsible management.
The goal of the new executive was to revitalize the operation and not only preserve but enhance it for future visitors. The focal point of the institution is the national mall, which also needs refurbishing. The mall and its popular environs are referred to as “the front porch of America,” and the porch is in dire need of improvement.
Clough seems off to a good start on that project. He was educated at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta and earned a doctorate in civil engineering at California-Berkeley, later teaching there and at Stanford. He spent 13 years at Georgia Tech and was contemplating retirement when concerned people talked him into accepting the Smithsonian challenge.
Of the Smithsonian, Clough says: “We often say, with great pride, that we are the world’s largest museum and research complex but we have no guarantee it will stay that way without good guidance. … General Motors used to be the world’s greatest carmaker. That doesn’t guarantee you anything. We have to be very good at what we do.”
Part of what makes the Smithsonian so distinctive and so popular is its embrace of history, arts, culture and science. Continuing to project such a reputation depends, says Clough, on letting people know what is happening, how much support is needed and why all this is vital. Clough believes the “Barack Obama factor” will help, luring more people to the museums and the mall in the aura of good feeling about the new president.
The Smithsonian Institution and the mall area that encompasses most of it are true national treasures that must be nurtured, supported and administered with loving care and good judgment. Clough seems to be off to a good start.