The Smithsonian’s choice for the founding director of its developing American Women’s History Museum has withdrawn from the role, the institution said Wednesday.
A Smithsonian spokeswoman, Linda St. Thomas, said that the new director, Nancy Yao, had cited “family issues that require her attention” in deciding to withdraw. The announcement came after the completion of an investigation into how Yao had handled sexual harassment claims in her previous role as the leader of the Museum of Chinese in America, in Manhattan’s Chinatown neighborhood, for eight years.
The Smithsonian declined to elaborate on the findings of the outside firm hired to investigate the sexual harassment issue and it did not detail the family issues Yao cited. But in a post on LinkedIn, Yao said her father is in hospice care, her two teenage children need her support and that the family situation meant she would not be able to give the museum the attention it deserved.
“Although it is an amazing opportunity, and one that I’ve always dreamed of, my family needs me now more than ever,” she wrote.
About a month after the Smithsonian announced her appointment, The Washington Post reported that under Yao, the Museum of Chinese in America had settled three wrongful-termination lawsuits filed by employees who said they were fired in retaliation for reporting sexual harassment on behalf of young female staff members at the organization.
For months, Yao’s appointment has hung in the balance as an outside firm investigated claims against her, which included an assertion in one of the lawsuits that, as museum president, she had “tolerated and endorsed two male employees’ persistent sexual harassment” of several female employees at the organization. Yao denied the allegation in court papers, asserting that the museum had proper policies and procedures in place to respond to workplace harassment. She denied to The Post that the staffers had been let go in retaliation for their reports, attributing the decisions to budget pressures.
In a phone interview after the Smithsonian’s announcement, Yao declined to discuss the investigation’s findings but said she wanted to state “how important I believe a safe workplace is for everyone.”
While the Smithsonian searches for a replacement, the women’s history museum has appointed Melanie A. Adams, the director of the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum, as interim director. The women’s history museum’s 18 staff members were informed of Yao’s decision on Wednesday, St. Thomas said.
In leading the development of a new museum, which does not yet have a building, Yao would have been overseeing an ambitious endeavor — curating a collection designed to represent the historical influence of American women. Establishing the museum, which is expected to open in roughly 10 years, was estimated to cost about $375 million between construction and the creation of exhibits.
The museum’s creation is partly being funded by the federal government and partly by philanthropy, no doubt making Yao’s track record with nonprofit fund-raising attractive to the Smithsonian.
A former Goldman Sachs employee in the investment banking division, Yao went on to lead a nonprofit dedicated to cultural exchange between the United States and China, before taking over the Museum of Chinese in America. She was leading the organization when a devastating fire ripped through the building, endangering roughly 85,000 artifacts. The museum secured a $3 million grant that would help preserve the collection, and later on, it announced plans for a new, significantly expanded headquarters designed by the architect Maya Lin and the museum designer Ralph Appelbaum. In its hiring announcement for Yao, the Smithsonian cited the organization’s accomplishment in raising more than $60 million for the project.
During her tenure at the Chinatown museum, Yao became an influential leader in New York City’s cultural sector, but also found herself the subject of fierce criticism in the surrounding community. In 2021, the museum was the site of protests by community members who objected to its decision to take $35 million from the city as part of a plan of community investment at a time when the city was expanding a jail in the neighborhood. At the time, Yao said that the protesters’ grievances had been misplaced onto the small museum.
The Smithsonian had announced that Yao would step in as the museum’s director on June 5, but the starting date had been delayed for weeks amid the investigation into Yao’s handling of the internal complaints in New York.