G. Wayne Clough, who announced Wednesday that he will step down as the head of the Smithsonian Institution in October 2014, arrived at the museums at a time when it was threatened by scandals and a crumbling infrastructure.
Clough, a civil engineer and former president of the Georgia Institute of Technology, joined the Smithsonian in July 2008. He has worked to bring the 167-year-old museums and research institution, which receive more than 30 million visitors per year, into the modern era.
His predecessor as secretary, banker Lawrence M. Small, had resigned the previous year after it was revealed that he was using Smithsonian money to fund private travel and buy expensive gifts.
In addition, the facilities—including 19 museums and galleries, a zoo and nine research complexes, many lining the National Mall—needed an estimated $2.5 billion in repairs.
Congress, which funds about 70% of the Smithsonian’s $1-billion annual budget, was highly critical of secrecy and mismanagement in the organization. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) called the Smithsonian “an endangered institution.”
Upon his arrival, Clough told the Washington Post, "My job is to put my arms around all of this" and define the 21st century Smithsonian.
During his tenure as secretary, Clough has focused on initiatives in digital access, education and conservation. He also spearheaded the Smithsonian’s first national fundraising campaign, which has raised $893 million in private contributions since 2008.
A particular emphasis was to expand the accessibility of the Smithsonian’s collection by digitizing some of its 137 million artifacts, scientific specimens and works of art for online viewing and learning. So far, 14 million objects have been prioritized for digitization.
Clough’s time as secretary has not been without its own controversies. In 2010, following calls from several Republican senators, he removed a short excerpt from a video installation at the National Portrait Gallery. The 11-second portion depicted a crucifix with ants crawling on it.
The decision was criticized by the Assn. of Museum Directors, and an advisory panel later issued recommendations to prevent the removal of any artwork from museum shows without wide consultation. Clough later told the Los Angeles Times that the decision was painful but denied it was censorship.
In a letter to staff that the Smithsonian shared on its Twitter feed, Clough praised the institution for becoming an “entrepreneurial, self-reliant, and relevant institution.”
“We have so much to contribute in art, science, history, culture, and education, and we are making all we do more accessible to millions around the world using the latest technologies,” he wrote. “There is nothing in the world quite like the Smithsonian. I join with you in sharing the pride in what we have accomplished.”
Clough has not yet announced his next plans. In a statement, the Smithsonian’s board of regents said it would form a committee to conduct an international search for a new secretary.
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