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The six-year term of Secretary of the Smithsonian G. Wayne Clough will be remembered for two things: the digitization of millions of objects from the Smithsonian Institution’s collections and the censorship of one artwork at the National Portrait Gallery. The other accomplishments—a record-setting $223 million in fundraising for 2012, and nearly $900 million over his term—all recede in comparison.
Clough came to the Smithsonian in 2008, succeeding Acting Secretary Cristián Samper, who was installed after Lawrence M. Small, the secretary who did the most to expand corporate sponsorship agreements at the Castle, resigned in disgrace over his personal spending. Clough, who had served as president at Georgia Tech, was poised to do wonders. And he did, flexing fundraising muscle but also setting the Smithsonian on a path to digitize 130 million objects, artifacts, and specimens—to be accessed online but in some cases even 3D-printed—across 19 different institutions.
But it was Clough’s response to one object, one minutes-long video clip, on view on one small screen at one museum, that brought the Smithsonian to its lowest point in decades. In late November 2010, Penny Starr, a journalist working for the Cybercast News Service, a branch of conservative activist Brent Bozell’s Alexandria-based Media Research Center, made note of a show that had been on view at the National Portrait Gallery for about a month. “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” contained works she deemed anti-Christian and anti-Christmas, in particular “A Fire in My Belly,” a video by David Wojnarowicz that featured scenes of ants crawling on a crucifix. From there, the Bozell machine went to work, calling on Republican members of Congress to be outraged or risk being deemed anti-Christmas themselves and flooding the Portrait Gallery with angry (and reportedly scripted) emails and phone calls.
When Clough ordered the work removed from the museum—a mere day after Starr registered her complaint—he submitted to the gross liberal instinct to fold before conservative dissent when it is both manufactured and irrational. (It was canny of Starr to hinge her argument on the ants on the crucifix, even though there’s nothing especially satanic about ants, since a direct attack mounted over the queer content of the show could have been dismissed as sheer homophobia. Not that long ago, homophobia would have kept these portraits out of the museum in the first place.)
In the three years that have passed since this episode, a dozen states and about as many nations have recognized marriage rights for same-sex couples. It’s hard to imagine, even just three years after the Wojnarowicz censorship incident, the Smithsonian buckling again under pressure over the display of art depicting same-sex love. Yet it is just as hard to imagine a secretary of the Smithsonian standing up to bullies—whether they be congressmen or mere mouthpieces like Starr—the next time they rear their head. As a technocrat, Clough expanded what the Smithsonian can accomplish; as a director of museums, he diminished what the Smithsonian stands for. His successor has big shoes to fill, all right.