WASHINGTON (AP) — As Wayne Clough prepares to leave the Smithsonian Institution after six years at the helm, the retiring engineer wanted to know a few more things about the 138 million objects at the world's largest museum complex.
He wondered: Could any pieces of the vast collection have come from his roots in rural South Georgia? So he began searching. It turns out quite a few relics and specimens come from his hometown, from a massive rattlesnake preserved in a jar to paintings, Native American pottery and other gems. He plans to publish a light-hearted book on his findings next year.
Beyond closing the loop on his career, Clough said his research shows the potential of opening up the Smithsonian's collection to a wider public by continuing to digitize thousands of objects.
"It really shows and will show more clearly in time the power of digitization and the power of personalization," Clough said.
Clough has been the Smithsonian's chief for the digital age. The former president of Georgia Tech came to the museum complex in Washington with a focus on modernizing its digital outreach and fundraising.
With the major digitization effort and the Smithsonian's most ambitious fundraising campaign underway — with $1 billion raised in the past four years toward a $1.5 billion goal — Clough is stepping down at year's end. He will retire to Atlanta and a new home in the country.
In an interview Monday, Clough said the Smithsonian has become a more vital place that's focused on the public, delivering K-12 education programs in all 50 states, offering 2,000 lesson plans online for teachers and forging new partnerships with universities.
"Intellectually we've lifted our game," Clough told The Associated Press.
Under his watch, the Smithsonian created a Transcription Center where 4,000 digital volunteers are working to attach information to images of museum objects to make them searchable and accessible online. Over time, a Google search of "Teddy Roosevelt" could produce a trove of museum holdings on the former president and naturalist.
None of that work in digital and educational outreach would be possible, though, without a major infusion of private money, Clough said.
The Smithsonian's taxpayer-funding model has been changing. The institution used to rely on Congress for 70 percent of its money, but that has fallen to 60 percent and could drop further.
Clough said he inherited an institution that had never run a national fundraising campaign and was still processing gifts by hand. He is proud that has changed with a donor base that has doubled in size.
Still, finances will be one of his successor's biggest challenges, Clough said, because the Smithsonian continues to grow and add new museums amid flat or declining government support. Federal funding will continue to be critical to maintain buildings, collections and free admission, he said.
"On the other hand, our Smithsonian business enterprises and philanthropy particularly and some of our research funding has to be part of the engine that makes the place work," Clough said. "Rather than feeling sorry for ourselves, we should feel very good that we can do this."
David Skorton, the outgoing president of Cornell University, will become the next Smithsonian leader in 2015 and has a strong track record in fundraising.
In retirement, Clough plans to teach at Georgia Tech and will work to complete several ongoing book projects with the Smithsonian.
Previous versions had "throughout" instead of "through" in extended headline.
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