Best of Both Worlds is a funny coda to G. Wayne Clough’s six-year stint as Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. His recent e-book, released in August, is a treatise on museums, a subject that would seem to tap his experience as governor along the National Mall. Yet it also draws attention to his greatest failure as an administrator—when, on Nov. 30, 2010, he submitted to anti-gay bullies by pulling an artwork they disliked from an exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery. His critics would spend the next three years saying: You had one job.
But his superiors on the Smithsonian’s board of regents have seen things differently. Although Clough received a rebuke for his handling of the Portrait Gallery episode, he also landed one significant fundraising goal after another, including last year’s record-setting $223 million and a decade-high 30 million visitors. So even after he proved to be a lightning rod for controversy, the board kept him on anyway.
Now Clough is out: As of October 2014, six years after he succeeded former Acting Secretary Cristián Samper, he is retiring, even as his core mission—the digitization of the Smithsonian’s collections—is still underway. Don’t mistake his departure for Smithsonian frustration about the censorship issue, though. It’s been almost four years since Clough decided to remove David Wojnarowicz’s 1987 video artwork, “A Fire in My Belly,” from a queer portraiture show as a result of an organized campaign launched by a conservative news site founded by Brent Bozell, founder of the Parents Television Council. Clough’s book is a template for the future of museums and a self-assessment of his tenure at the Smithsonian—but it is not an apology.
Haters and fans will find what they want to find in Best of Both Worlds, which extols the enormous potential for digitization to transform the way that we experience the Smithsonian. The people who still mistrust Clough for the Portrait Gallery incident—and count among this group gay people and gay activists but also art lovers and free-speech defenders and many museums and art foundations—may see in this book a technocrat’s generalized disregard for art as soft. Yet others may appreciate Clough for taking the emphasis off the gallery experience altogether.
“When I was at Georgia Tech, we saw that the students were using the library without ever darkening its doorway,” writes Clough, “because digital access was becoming so easy.” That’s the way the president emeritus of Georgia Tech would have it. His enthusiasm for science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM) and digital doorways to such materials will surely appeal to many—board members, yes, but also members of Congress and millions of Americans who love the natural and applied sciences. And Clough’s broader goals for the Smithsonian, for the sciences and arts alike, are fundamentally democratic: Americans shouldn’t have to be here to get into the cultural treasury. (High-speed Internet would help, though.)
As appealing as all of this sounds, in execution, the Smithsonian’s digitization strategy involves most of the same steps that every organization on the planet is mulling. “By the end of 2011, almost 90 percent of American libraries reported using Facebook and almost half were using Twitter to promote their services, provide user updates, and reach potential new users,” Clough writes. That’s all true—but so are food trucks, @TidyCats and @HormelFoods, and my parents. Which is to simply observe that even as important as the Smithsonian’s content is, online it’s still just one more voice in the chorus singing the song you can’t get out of your head.
That word, “content,” is too cheap to describe the Hope Diamond or Whistler’s “Peacock Room”—or the not-toppable experience of browsing the Minerals and Gems collection or visiting the Freer Gallery. Yet content is the unit in which Clough’s book trades, and it should give readers pause, no matter where they stand on Clough.
Clough’s greatest hallmark as secretary—the digitization project—is still in progress. Since we don’t need digital files for all 2.3 million moths in the collections (sorry, lepidopterists), the Smithsonian is focusing on first digitizing 10 percent of the museums’ holdings, or 14 million objects. Museums of all stripes are doing similar work, and a lot of it is terribly exciting. Both New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the American Museum of Natural History are launching massive open online courses—MOOCs, the latest in disruptive technologies riling up fans of the traditional college experience. But of course, digitization is a significant draw on resources. In its FY 2014 budget request, the Smithsonian asked for a $2.6 million increase for digitization and Web access initiatives. And the 2014 budget calls for a $25 million increase for STEM engagement—accounting for one-third of new salary and expense asks.
Writing about digitization at Britain’s Tate Museum, Clough notes, “Today 7 million people visit the museum facilities each year, while the number of unique visitors to the website totals 14 million.” That would be music to a media outlet’s ears, but it’s not clear what uniques should mean to a Tate or Smithsonian curator. Is Web traffic an appropriate way of evaluating the Smithsonian’s value? (And is it fair to ask smaller museums to worry about Web metrics, too, when they’re already losing on foot traffic?)
Digitization isn’t the problem, of course. But to put the quantitative ahead of the qualitative is a major misreading of the Smithsonian’s mission. And in some crude sense, that’s what happened when Clough received thousands of complaints from Bozell’s Media Research Center, about ants crawling over a crucifix in Wojnarowicz’s video, one piece in a show of dozens. Clough didn’t read them collectively as one complaint, the way the Federal Communications Commission eventually registered the letter campaigns from Bozell’s Parents Television Council. Clough perceived a majority and took its side against a minority—against gays, maybe, or artists, or maybe just poor dead Wojnarowicz. But it was a misread, the way that any valuation of the Smithsonian based on metrics alone is bound to produce.
Some in the art world think that the Smithsonian needs its own Pope Francis, a with-it leader who esteems contemporary art just as much as STEM. It’s true that the Smithsonian needs a devoted undersecretary for art. (Ned Rifkin’s former position was eliminated by Clough.) But what it needs in the top slot is another John Paul II, which in the history of the Castle’s bannermen would be S. Dillon Ripley, a heroic secretary who served from 1964 to 1984. The Monarch of the Mall would have eaten Brent Bozell alive. The next secretary won’t need to do that—but he or she should think about expanding the Mall and reconfiguring how we experience it. The razzle-dazzle of putting Smithsonian stuff online has only so much momentum.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery