[Note for those who mentally enunciate words while reading: the last name is pronounced “Cluff.”]
Secretary Clough reminded the audience that we own the Smithsonian, and what that amounts to is 19 museums and galleries containing 137 million objects, plus the National Zoo and 20 libraries. Each year the Smithsonian has 27 million visitors. In addition there are numerous research centers with activities in 88 countries.
That’s the Smithsonian’s short now—it’s current profile to fulfill its abiding mission to help society understand and remember itself. The Institution’s long now reaches back quite a ways and hopes to reach into the future well beyond the 300 years of national history it represents so far.
The greatest temporal reach comes from the one-sixth of all Smithsonian employees who engage in astronomy and astrophysics, operating such tools as the Kepler Telescope launched into orbit last March to discover remote planets that might harbor life and the Giant Magellan Telescope being built in Chile that will have the ten times the resolving power of the Hubble Space Telescope and may be able to examine the earliest remnants of the Big Bang fourteen billion years ago.
Much of our understanding of current climate hazards is coming from paleoclimatology. Ice core studies give us 800,000 years of data, but stratigraphic study of leaves is yielding crucial information about what happened 55 million years ago when the Earth warmed drastically and suddenly in what is called the Paleocene Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM). Clough described his visit with Smithsonian researcher Scott Wing doing field work in Bighorn Basin, Wyoming, where he saw evidence of palm trees growing in the area when the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was three times what we have now, and the newly evolving horse was the size of cat because hot climates make for smaller animals.
Clough sees the long-term role of the Smithsonian as working with the constant tension between the permanent and the ephemeral and the full exploration of what he called “collaborative long-term thinking.” He ended with a quote from Smithsonian curator David Shayt: “There’s an accurate perception that we are forever…, that we will care for and honor an object eternally. That perception of immortality is very precious to people.”-- by Stewart Brand