WASHINGTON – The Smithsonian Institution will work to digitize its collections to make science, history and cultural artifacts accessible online and dramatically expand its outreach to schools, the museum complex's new chief said Monday.
"I worry about museums becoming less relevant to society," said Secretary G. Wayne Clough in his first interviews since taking the Smithsonian's helm in July.
Clough, 66, who was president of the Georgia Institute of Technology for 14 years, says he's working to bring in video gaming experts and Web gurus to collaborate with curators on creative ways to present artifacts online and make them appealing to kids.
"I think we need to take a major step," Clough said in an earlier interview. "Can we work with outside entities to create a place, for example, where we might demonstrate cutting-edge technologies to use to reach out to school systems all over the country? I think we can do that."
Smithsonian officials do not know how long it will take or how much it will cost to digitize the full 137 million-object collection and will do it as money becomes available. A team will prioritize which artifacts are digitized first.
Clough told reporters and editors of The Associated Press that the Smithsonian will need a reorganized, central department that would become an authority on K-12 curriculum development.
The biggest advantage for the museums, including the American history and air and space, is that many of their visitors are younger. Longtime Smithsonian leaders acknowledge, though, that the academic side could do more to relate to youngsters.
"Wayne's coming from a place, Georgia Tech, where he spent a lot of time with 19-year-olds, which is a demographic that the Smithsonian doesn't relate to all that much," said Richard Kurin, the acting under secretary for history, art and culture. "That's where the future is."
It's also a new way for the Smithsonian to generate cash from private educational foundations or the U.S. Department of Education at a time when funding from Congress is flat and could decline, Clough said.
The Georgia native replaced a Smithsonian chief who was criticized for pursuing questionable commercial ventures, including a television deal with Showtime, and spending lavishly on corporate travel and expenses while trying to boost moneymaking operations.
The push to connect with schools comes as some museums across the country are seeing declines in student field trips, said Ford Bell, president of the American Association of Museums.
The federal No Child Left Behind law with its "focus on math and reading, and the high prices of gasoline is a double whammy," Bell said.
Some museums are going out of their way to prove their programs tie in with state education standards, Bell said. Museum leaders also are increasingly focused on digitizing their online collections, despite its expense, he said.