Smithsonian Overhaul Ushers in Change at Institution

November 24, 2008 at 6:45 PM EDT
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Recent outrage over the Smithsonian's management practices tarnished the cultural and scientific giant's image. Days after its National Museum of American History reopened in Washington, Jeffrey Brown reports on changes that are underway and new funding challenges.

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, it reopened this weekend after major renovations. Jeffrey Brown reports.

JEFFREY BROWN: It has 137 million artifacts, everything from Dorothy’s ruby slippers and the Hope Diamond to full-size dinosaur skeletons and works of art from the world over, and 19 museums, including Air and Space, the most visited museum in the world, and other large and small gems gathered around the National Mall in Washington and beyond.

Overall, some 24 million people come each year to the many parts of the enormous cultural and scientific enterprise known as the Smithsonian Institution. And, like them, the new man in charge, Wayne Clough, is often in awe.

WAYNE CLOUGH, secretary, Smithsonian Institution: Standing next to the desk that Jefferson designed, the writing desk, and on which he wrote the Declaration of Independence, that’s an authentification experience. And I think every American wants to have that kind of experience.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re kind of a national storehouse in that sense, or attic, I guess?

WAYNE CLOUGH: We don’t use the word “attic” in the sense that attic implies not too much is happening. It’s dusty and dank and all those kind of things. In fact, our collections are very active collections, and we believe that those collections speak to the future of our planet and our country.

JEFFREY BROWN: But while addressing the future of the 162-year-old institution…

WAYNE CLOUGH: These are real fish, and a collection of reef fish…

JEFFREY BROWN: … Clough must also deal with its immediate past. The Smithsonian’s reputation was severely tarnished in recent years, beginning with charges of excessive personal spending by previous Secretary Lawrence Small, questions of his pay and that of other top officials, and much more that led to congressional outrage over the institution’s management.

An independent panel concluded that the Smithsonian was suffering a governance crisis and accused Small of creating an “imperialistic and insular culture.”

It also criticized the institution’s governing body, the Board of Regents, for “failing to provide badly needed oversight of Small and operations at the Smithsonian.”

WAYNE CLOUGH: Being around these young people and seeing what’s going on…

Institution revamps its image

JEFFREY BROWN: Wayne Clough, for many years president of Georgia Tech, is a civil engineer who knows a lot about building projects. At the Smithsonian, his task is to rebuild: morale on the inside, confidence from the outside.

WAYNE CLOUGH: We need to restore it with Congress, where people are elected to oversee institutions like the Smithsonian. We need to restore it with the American public, where those relationships were damaged. And we need to make sure that people understand this institution still is sound and viable for the future.

JEFFREY BROWN: One sign of new times for the Smithsonian: the governing Board of Regents just held its first public hearing ever.

This is not your typical corporate board. It includes members of Congress and also the vice president and the Supreme Court chief justice, neither of whom was able to attend this day. And it has long operated out of public view.

At the recent meeting, some pointed questions were asked by audience members and by people submitting queries online, such as this one, read aloud by a Smithsonian staffer.

STAFFER: How come regents who selected the previous secretary are allowed to continue as regents? Why did you not all resign?

ROGER SANT, chairman, Smithsonian Board of Regents: The obvious decision was, "Do we resign or do we roll up our sleeves?" And we chose the latter. And I think the proof is in the pudding.

We felt we had been a part of the problem; we ought to be the ones who fix it. And so that's why we're all here.

Focus on ethics, fundraising

JEFFREY BROWN: Several internal reforms have already been announced: museum directors and Clough himself must now have their travel approved, for example.

And Clough, who's being paid about half of Larry Small's salary, says he's reviewing from top to bottom ways to ensure ethical and effective practices.

Another big issue is money. The Smithsonian receives 70 percent of its $1 billion annual budget from the federal government, the rest coming from corporate and foundation contributions, as well as revenues from the institution's stores and restaurants.

Facing a $2.5 billion bill for maintenance and improvements, and in the midst of tough economic times, Clough knows it will be harder than ever to get funding from a skeptical Congress. He's now launching a Capital campaign to greatly ramp up private funding.

WAYNE CLOUGH: We have some serious problems. There's a museum next to us called the Arts and Industries Building, which is closed. It's been closed for four years.

We need to reopen that beautiful museum. We need to find a purpose for it that fits that building. We need to find the funding to fix it. Nobody's bailing out the Smithsonian.

So I told our folks here, it's silly for us to sit and think the federal government will ride to the rescue.

Many exhibits striking, unique

JEFFREY BROWN: What Clough still has going for him, of course, is the wonder of the institution itself. And he's intent on reaching out to the public with a message that the Smithsonian is an active scientific and educational institution, engaging museums, yes, but also nine research centers, like this one in Maryland, where work ranges from a DNA lab to anthropological archives where endangered languages are studied.

And he wants the Smithsonian to be a place to explore the big issues of our time, like species at risk due to climate change.

WAYNE CLOUGH: This is a half-scale model of a living creature that we're following in the oceans today. It brings it home, I think, to young people about how delicately poised these species are and how important the ocean is to them and us.

JEFFREY BROWN: The brand-new Sant Ocean Hall at the National Museum of Natural History is one of the Smithsonian's new offerings to visitors, who flocked to the opening in September.

A place to stare into the teeth of a giant shark or take in "Science on a Sphere," showing how the ocean is part of a complex global system.

Though he's still learning about the millions of objects and the many parts of his new charge, Clough believes that, adding it all up, visitors get a great experience and something more.

Museums house America's history

WAYNE CLOUGH: And we want people, for example, to understand what America is. We have to see these objects to some extent to understand what America is. What's the idea of America? Mr. Smithson understood it when he made that donation to create the Smithsonian.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean it's as fundamental as that? What is the idea of America? You come to the Smithsonian?

WAYNE CLOUGH: Absolutely. Because you can see the history of this country, and you can see how all the different strings that make up this country, all the different ethnic and racial threads that make the fabric of America come together.

Now, we haven't fully told that story yet, but we will be telling that story in the future, and that's part of the vision, is that this will be an institution that really is a resource to the American people and people who visit here to understand America.

JEFFREY BROWN: Visitors can once again get a direct look at the history and life of this country at another of the Smithsonian's jewels with the reopening of the National Museum of American History after a two-year, $85 million renovation.

Among its many treasures: the White House copy of President Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and the almost 200-year-old Star-Spangled Banner.