The Smithsonian’s pick as the founding director of its burgeoning American Women’s History Museum has stepped down from the role, the institution said Wednesday.
Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas, said the new director, Nancy Yao, cited “family matters that require her attention” in deciding to step down. The announcement came after the completion of an investigation into how Yao handled claims of sexual harassment in her previous role as head of a New York museum.
Yao led the Museum of Chinese in America, a small cultural organization in Manhattan’s Chinatown, for eight years.
The Smithsonian declined to elaborate on the findings of the outside firm hired to investigate the sexual harassment. It did not elaborate on the family issues Yao cited in announcing her retirement.
About a month after the Smithsonian announced her nomination, The Washington Post reported that under Yao, the Museum of Chinese in America settled three wrongful termination lawsuits brought 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 hung in the balance while an outside firm investigated claims against her, which included a claim in one of the lawsuits that, as museum president, she “tolerated and approved persistent sexual harassment by two male employees” of several. female employees at the organization. Yao denied the allegation in court papers, claiming the museum had proper policies and procedures in place to respond to workplace harassment. She denied to The Post that the staffers were let go in retaliation for their reports, attributing the decisions to budget pressures.
Yao did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.
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 18 employees of the women’s history museum were informed of Yao’s decision on Wednesday, St. Thomas said.
Leading the development of a new museum that 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. Establish the museum, which is expected to open in about 10 years, was evaluated to cost approximately $375 million between construction and the creation of exhibits.
The creation of the museum is partly funded by the federal government and partly by philanthropy, no doubt making Yao’s history with nonprofit fundraising attractive to the Smithsonian.
A former Goldman Sachs employee in the investment banking division, Yao went on lead a nonprofit dedicated to cultural exchange between the United States and China, before taking over the Museum of China in America. She led the organization when a devastating fire tore through the building, endangering an estimated 85,000 artifacts. The museum secured a $3 million grant that would help preserve the collection, and later, it announced plans for a new, significantly expanded headquarters designed by the architect Maya Lin and the museum designer Ralph Appelbaum. In its employment announcement for Yao, the Smithsonian cited the fulfillment of the organization in obtaining more than 60 million USD for the project.
During her tenure at the Chinatown museum, Yao became an influential leader in New York’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 community investment plan at a time when the city was expanding a jail in the neighborhood. At the time, Yao said that the protestors’ complaints were misplaced on the small museum.
The Smithsonian announced that Yao would step in as the museum’s director on June 5, but the start date was delayed for weeks amid the investigation into Yao’s handling of the internal complaints in New York.