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Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum Names New Director

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Second time’s the charm?

A year after the Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum in Washington named its founding director — only to have the candidate withdraw before her official start date — the museum is trying again.

It has chosen Elizabeth C. Babcock, the president and chief executive of Forever Balboa Park in San Diego, a nonprofit, as its new director. An anthropologist, museum educator and experienced administrator, Babcock will take over an institution that is still very much in formation. Although Congress approved plans for the museum in 2020, it is about a decade away from opening and does not have a site or a permanent collection yet.

The museum’s original choice, Nancy Yao, resigned after an investigation into her handling of sexual harassment claims while leading the Museum of Chinese in America in Manhattan.

After Yao’s appointment was announced, The Washington Post reported that her former workplace had settled three wrongful-termination lawsuits from employees who said they were fired in retaliation for reporting sexual misconduct. A Smithsonian spokeswoman said in 2023 that Yao had cited “family issues that require her attention” when she withdrew. (The Smithsonian used a different search firm this time around, according to the spokeswoman.)

In an interview, Babcock said her priorities for the museum include expanding into digital media and supporting scholarly research. “We are going to listen and learn and work hard to ensure that the material we cover represents diverse communities across the country,” she said. She declined to specify whether the museum would include the work of transgender women, but said that “our museum will not shy away from discussing controversial topics.” She will begin her new role in June.

Babcock has been the chief executive of Forever Balboa Park since 2022. Before that, she was dean of education at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco and vice president of education and library collections at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.

The American Women’s History Museum, which has been led by an interim director, Melanie A. Adams, since last summer, has a staff of 22, with six more to begin this year. Its annual operating budget is $7 million.

Fund-raising will be a key part of Babcock’s agenda. The museum needs to raise half its total budget, which is expected to exceed the $540 million it cost to open the National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2016. (The other half of the budget comes from the federal government.) So far, it has amassed $65.5 million from donors.

Babcock said that she intends to cultivate support from both women and men. “I think the power here for this museum is that it represents all of us — its intention is to be inclusive,” she said.

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