National Press Club

Smithsonian Chief Discusses Going Digital at NPC Luncheon

July 2, 2009 | By Ken Dalecki

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G. Wayne Clough, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, told a luncheon audience July 1 that the Smithsonian is quickly entering the digital age, opening vast portions of its 137 million item collection to anyone with a computer.

“We have the capacity to tell the story of American and all its hopes, struggles, triumphs, creativity, contradictions and courage,” said Clough, former president of Georgia Institute of Technology who has just completed one year at the helm of the 163-year-old museum.

“Today we have the opportunity to reach people with this story in ways not previously imaginable.”

Only 1% of the Smithsonian’s collection is on display at any given time, Clough noted.

“Ultimately, we want to put all of our 137 million objects on a thumb drive and online so you can access them wherever you live. We want to offer the Smithsonian experience to everyone,” he said.

As an example, he cited a pilot project earlier this year focusing on the museum’s Lincoln collection that used Internet technology to help curators reach teachers and students in all 50 states and 2,000 cities. “The surprise was that people in 75 countries also participated.”

Other examples of making the Smithsonian’s work more accessible include providing at its website an online “Encyclopedia of Life” that will eventually have a page for each of the 1.8 million known living species. Its entire collection of 1934 paintings from the New Deal artists program is available online. And webcams at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo give viewers live feeds animals, including newborns.

Despite challenging economic times, Clough said the Smithsonian will never charge admission to his 19 museums but will seek innovative ways to rise some 30% of its budget that does not come from the federal government.

That includes some $250 million needed to pay half the cost of a new African-American museum to be built on Constitution Avenue near the Washington Monument.

He noted that the Smithsonian’s endowment, which once reached $1 billion, is down to about $815 million. He said the Board of Regents has adoptioned some 25 reform policies in the wake of criticism resulting from lavish spending by his predecessor.