Nancy Yao Steps Down as Director of Museum of Women's History

The Smithsonian's choice for founding director of the burgeoning Museum of American Women's History has withdrawn from the role, the agency said Wednesday.

A spokeswoman for the Smithsonian, Linda St. Thomas, said the new director, Nancy Yao, had cited “a family matter that required her attention” in deciding to step down. The announcement came after the completion of an investigation into how Yao handled claims of sexual abuse in his previous role as head of New York's museums.

Yao has chaired the Museum of Chinese in America, a small cultural organization in Manhattan's Chinatown neighborhood, for eight years.

The Smithsonian declined to elaborate on the findings of an outside company hired to investigate sexual harassment issues. It did not detail the family problems Yao cited when announcing his retirement.

About a month after the Smithsonian announced his appointment, The Washington Post reported that under Yao, the Chinese Museum in America 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 hung in the balance as outside companies investigated claims against him, including assertions in one lawsuit that, as museum president, he had “tolerated and supported the persistent sexual harassment of two male employees” of several female employees in the organization. Yao denied the accusations in court papers, asserting that the museum had proper policies and procedures in place to respond to workplace harassment. He denied The Post that staff had been let go in retaliation for their report, attributing the decision to budgetary pressures.

Yao did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.

While the Smithsonian is seeking a replacement, the museum of women's history has appointed Melanie A. Adams, director of the Smithsonian's Anacostia Community Museum, as interim director. 18 women's history museum staff members were informed of Yao's decision on Wednesday, said St. Thomas.

In leading the development of the new museum, which does not yet have a building, Yao will oversee an ambitious endeavor — putting together a collection designed to represent the historical influence of American women. Founded the museum, which is expected to open in about 10 years, estimated cost an estimated $375 million between construction and creation of the exhibition.

The creation of the museum was funded partly by the federal government and partly by philanthropy, no doubt making Yao's track record with non-profit fundraising attractive to the Smithsonian.

A former Goldman Sachs employee in the investment banking division, Yao continued leading a non-profit organization dedicated to cultural exchange between the United States and China, before taking over the Chinese Museum in America. He was leading the organization when a devastating fire engulfed the building, endangering some 85,000 artifacts. The museum secured a $3 million grant that would help preserve the collection, and later, announced plans for a significantly expanded new headquarters designed by architect Maya Lin and museum designer Ralph Appelbaum. In his hiring announcement for Yao, the Smithsonian quoted the organization's achievements in raising over $60 million for the project.

During his tenure at the Chinatown museum, Yao became an influential leader in New York City's cultural sector, but also found himself the target of harsh criticism in surrounding communities. In 2021, the museum was the scene of an outcry by members of the community 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 is expanding the prison in the neighborhood. At the time, Yao said that the protesters' grievances had been misplaced in the small museum.

The Smithsonian had announced that Yao would serve as museum director on June 5, but the start date has been postponed for weeks amid investigations into Yao's handling of internal complaints in New York.