American Women’s History Museum founding director Nancy Yao withdraws from role

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Nancy Yao, who had been selected by the Smithsonian Institution last March to be the founding director of the forthcoming American Women’s History Museum (AWHM), has withdrawn from the position, citing family issues.

A spokesperson for the Smithsonian did not share additional details, but a LinkedIn post by Yao regarding her decision mentions her father’s poor health and the need to care for her two teenage sons, all of which would make it “impossible for me to give the project the attention it deserves while also being there for my family”.

Yao had previously served as the director of the Museum of Chinese in America (Moca) in New York City. Last March she was selected to be the first dedicated director of the AWHM, a new institution in Washington, DC, which was formally created by the US Congress in 2020 and is expected to take shape at a yet-to-be-determined site on or near the National Mall. Earlier this year, the Smithsonian revealed it had already raised more than $55m toward the project. The museum, whose development is expected to take more than a decade, was initially estimated to cost around $375m in all.

“The Smithsonian will begin a new search for a director immediately,” a Smithsonian spokesperson says, adding that the hope is for a new director to be selected “within six months of so”. In the meantime, Melanie Adams, the director of the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum, will serve as interim director and the American Women’s History Museum’s current interim director, Lisa Sasaki, will take on a new role within the institution.

The Smithsonian’s selection of Yao to lead AWHM was not without its complications. During her tenure at Moca—where she helped plan a $118m expansion project designed by Maya Lin that will more than quadruple the museum’s footprint—she faced criticism over board co-chair Jonathan Chu’s apparent complicity in a plan (now underway) to replace a jail in Manhattan’s Chinatown neighbourhood with an even larger facility dubbed the “skyscraper jail” by its opponents. In 2021, the museum cancelled an exhibition about the influential Asian American artist collective Godzilla, after 19 of its members withdrew in protest of Moca’s perceived support for the “skyscraper jail” project.

Shortly after her appointment The Washington Post reported on Yao’s handling of three wrongful termination lawsuits filed by former Moca employees who claimed they were fired for reporting instances of sexual harassment. The Smithsonian contracted an outside firm to review those allegations, delaying Yao’s planned June start date.

Yao also led efforts at Moca to recover and conserve artefacts damaged in a major fire in January 2020 that destroyed a Chinatown building where the museum stored objects from its collection.

The AWHM is one of two new Smithsonian museums in advanced planning stages for Washington, DC. The other, the National Museum of the American Latino, selected former HistoryMiami Museum leader Jorge Zamanillo as its founding director.

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