Smithsonian's Wayne Clough Plays Not My Job
CARL KASELL: From NPR and WBEZ-Chicago, this is WAIT WAIT...DON'T TELL ME!, the NPR News quiz. I'm Carl Kasell. And here again is your host, at the Chase Bank Auditorium in downtown Chicago, Peter Sagal.
PETER SAGAL, HOST:
Thank, Carl. The Smithsonian Institution is often called The Nation's Attic, where we keep all the stuff we don't use anymore but can't bear to throw it out. The Secretary of the Smithsonian, Dr. Wayne Clough, has a PhD in engineering and we wondered why the musuem needed an actual scientist if all he's doing is storing our old frat t-shirts. I started by asking Wayne what he actually does.
DR. WAYNE CLOUGH: Well, you have to make sure all those wonderful collections - we have 137 million objects in our collections - and that all those things are taken care of. And we have wonderful scientists here and scholars. We put on 100 exhibitions a year. And we have all of these wonderful things we do at the National Zoo. So my job is to kind of make sure it all flows smoothly and stays on track.
SAGAL: We were looking through the list of museums that comprise the Smithsonian, and there are so many of them. And we found that in addition to the big popular ones, there's the Air and Space Museum, of course, and the Museum of Natural History, but we also found that you guys run the National Postal Museum. And while we...
CLOUGH: One of my favorites.
SAGAL: Really? So we actually wanted to ask you, while you're here, make a pitch for why on the next trip to Washington, instead of going over to the National Air and Space Museum and seeing the rockets, everybody should go to the National Postal Museum. Go, sir.
CLOUGH: Well, the National Postal Museum really is home to the biggest stamp collection in the world. Now, of course, if you're really into it, you're called a philatelist.
SAGAL: That's true.
CLOUGH: ...pronouncing that word.
PAULA POUNDSTONE: I don't date anybody.
SAGAL: That's not what that word means, Paula, relax.
POUNDSTONE: Sorry, Dr. Clough.
SAGAL: So you have stamps. All right, stamps are good. I'm still heading for the rockets.
CLOUGH: Yeah, but you can see Owney, which is the mail dog. And he's, of course, mounted, as we call it.
CLOUGH: He delivered mail all over the country with his colleagues on the trains.
SAGAL: All right.
POUNDSTONE: That's what they call it too, sir.
SAGAL: So I'm thinking about going to see the rockets and the space ships and the planes and you're telling me that if I go to the Postal Museum, I can see a stuffed dog.
CLOUGH: He's very cute.
SAGAL: All right, well in that case, off we go.
LUKE BURBANK: Dr. Clough, I saw this documentary a couple of years ago about this security guard at a museum who gets locked inside.
BURBANK: And it's incredible what happens. A lot of the things come alive. He meets Robin Williams. How often does that kind of thing happen to you?
CLOUGH: Well, I worry about that at night, let me tell you.
SAGAL: Have you ever, like, stayed overnight in the museum, hidden in a corner, just to see if it's true?
CLOUGH: Well, not quite. I'm just thinking. But we do have sleepovers, and so if you would like to go on a sleepover, we can arrange for it.
SAGAL: You know, I and my kids did a sleepover at the great Field Museum here in Chicago, and they were very, very excited to spend the night at the Field Museum.
SAGAL: It's a fine museum. But around 10 o'clock, when it was dark out, and we were supposed to go to bed and the exhibits were not in fact coming to life...
SAGAL: ...my children felt ripped off.
SAGAL: Legitimately, they were like, why are we here?
CLOUGH: We do have sleepovers at the zoo, and I can guarantee you, the animals out there are alive.
SAGAL: All right.
SAGAL: One of the great things about the Smithsonian, of course, is the collection of sort of modern cultural memorabilia that you have. I'm thinking of Archie Bunker's chair and Madonna's bustier. Is there anything in the museum that personally embarrasses you?
CLOUGH: Well, I've always thought that the puffy shirt from the show was one of those things I have said, "I wonder why we have that?"
SAGAL: Wait a minute; I'm sorry.
BURBANK: From "Seinfeld?"
SAGAL: The puffy shirt?
CLOUGH: Yeah, from "Seinfeld."
SAGAL: The puffy shirt from "Seinfeld."
POUNDSTONE: Yeah, that does seem weird, honestly.
SAGAL: Have you ever thought of removing it when no one is looking?
CLOUGH: Well, the word for it is called de-accessioning.
CLOUGH: That's what they call it.
POUNDSTONE: De-accessioning, that's when you take something out in the dark of night, because it embarrasses you?
CLOUGH: That's correct.
POUNDSTONE: Yeah. You know, sometimes they call it stealing.
SAGAL: There are a number of celebrities and other people in America who probably think that their stuff should be in the Smithsonian. Do you have to deal with those people and how to figure out a way to turn them down?
CLOUGH: We get offers of things periodically that we do turn down.
SAGAL: Can you give me an example?
CLOUGH: Oh, well, sometimes they're just too darned big. Larry Ellison wanted to give us his sailboat from the Americas Cup, which was fabulous, but we just didn't have a place to put it, it was so big.
FIROOZEH DUMAS: Couldn't you like keep it for, like, yourself but pretend it's for the museum?
POUNDSTONE: No, because then you'd have to get rid of the puffy shirt.
BURBANK: No, you wear the puffy shirt when you're on the boat.
SAGAL: So, I mean, but you must - I mean Larry Ellison's sailboat won the Americas Cup, that would be good. But there must be stuff that's just like ridiculous, like, "No, Mr. Trump, we don't want your hair. You should keep it." Or whatever it may be.
SAGAL: I mean does that happen that you have to...
CLOUGH: We had someone offer us a casket that they found on their property and we declined that one.
SAGAL: They found a casket?
CLOUGH: Apparently. And he didn't know what it was but he was willing to give it to us.
BURBANK: Do you ever get the feeling people are just trying to unload their junk on you?
BURBANK: Like gently used crossword puzzle book?
SAGAL: Maybe we can donate something from WAIT WAIT...DON'T TELL ME!
POUNDSTONE: Oh, there's a good idea.
CLOUGH: We'd love to have something.
SAGAL: Wait a minute, really?
POUNDSTONE: We found a coffin just outside the...
SAGAL: Well, Dr. Clough, we've invited you here to play a game that this time we're calling?
KASELL: America's Dumpster.
SAGAL: You run America's Attic, where we keep the stuff worth keeping, but what about the stuff that isn't? It turns out there are people out there who are hoarding things so weird even A and E would not stoop to broadcasting it.
SAGAL: We're going to ask you three questions about collections of stuff no one would think to collect, and you'll win our prize for one of our listeners, the completely collectible Carl Kasell voicemail message. Ready to play?
CLOUGH: I'm ready.
SAGAL: And who is Wayne Clough playing for, Carl?
KASELL: He's playing for Jess Goldstein of Minneapolis, Minnesota.
SAGAL: There you are.
SAGAL: Here is your first question, Dr. Clough. A man named Michael Lewis collects a very common item, one which most people don't value as much as he does. What is it? Is it A: Broken shoelaces? B: Moist towelettes? Or C: Moneyballs?
CLOUGH: Oh, my god. Broken shoelaces, maybe that would be a good guess.
SAGAL: Is that your choice?
CLOUGH: No, how about B?
SAGAL: You're going to go for - you had that sort of rising inflection. I didn't know if you were asking. You're going to choose B: moist towelettes?
SAGAL: Yes, it is moist towelettes.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
SAGAL: Quote, "No one can deny that moist towelettes are a vital part of the world in which we live," said Mr. Lewis. Sadly, the collection is sadly no longer on the Web.
Next question: a woman named Deborah Henson-Conant curates a kind of art collection. She is the curator of what? A: The Museum of Doodles I Made While On the Phone? B: The Burnt Food Museum? Or C: The Museum of Interesting Bug Windshield Splatters?
CLOUGH: Oh, I kind of like the last one. I grew up in southern Georgia and we had a lot of bug splatters on the windshields.
SAGAL: You're going to go for that?
SAGAL: No, I'm afraid it was actually the Burnt Food Museum.
POUNDSTONE: Oh, wait a minute. There couldn't be a Burnt Food Museum if they haven't come to my house to collect.
SAGAL: Well, you have to submit, Paula. This all started about...
POUNDSTONE: Oh, I didn't realize.
SAGAL: ...about 20 years ago when this woman was on the phone. She forgot about she was making some spiced apple cider on the stove. She forgot about it. She came back and it had been reduced to a very interesting sculptural shape, and that's how it began.
POUNDSTONE: Oh, wow.
SAGAL: So you have to submit things, take pictures.
POUNDSTONE: Oh, I didn't even realize.
BURBANK: Some people just use cleaning.
BURBANK: For that kind of problem, as opposed to starting museums.
SAGAL: All right, here is your last question. If you get this right, you win. A man named Graham Barker collects something that most of us throw away without even thinking about it. What is it? A: Used Kleenexes? B: Used meat dresses? Or C: Belly button lint?
POUNDSTONE: Ew. It's all gross.
CLOUGH: Ew. Oh, it's got to be C.
SAGAL: It is C.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
SAGAL: It's belly button lint.
SAGAL: Mr. Barker has a collection of three jars of what he calls naval fluff. It is, you might be relieved to know, entirely his own, 20 years worth.
CLOUGH: Tell him not to send it to the Smithsonian.
SAGAL: Carl, how did Dr. Clough do on our quiz?
KASELL: He had two correct answers, Peter, so he wins for Jess Goldstein.
SAGAL: Well done, Dr. Clough.
SAGAL: Dr. Wayne Clough is the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. The Smithsonian's new website is seriouslyamazing.com. Mr. Secretary, thank you so much for joining us.
CLOUGH: Thank you.
POUNDSTONE: Thank you, Dr. Clough.
SAGAL: Thank you, Dr. Clough.
CLOUGH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.