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Nancy Yao chosen as founding director of Smithsonian women’s museum

Nancy Yao plans to hit the ground running as the founding director of the Smithsonian American Women's History Museum. (Museum of Chinese in America)
4 min

When Nancy Yao, the incoming head of the American Women’s History Museum, refers to the task of outlining and realizing a vision for the new Smithsonian facility as a “marathon,” it’s no empty analogy. As president of the Museum of Chinese in America since 2015, Yao has raced in the New York City Marathon three times to raise funds for that institution.

Expressing a desire to hit the ground running as the founding director of the Smithsonian women’s museum, Yao said she feels the “need to run fast.” But then, she cautioned, “you need to pace yourself.”

“I feel incredibly energized,” Yao added. “I feel pumped. And I feel that there’s a lot of work to do.”

The Smithsonian on Monday announced Yao’s appointment to the American Women’s History Museum’s top job, which she will begin June 5. The selection has been more than two years in the making: Congress authorized the women’s museum and the National Museum of the American Latino in December 2020, and Jorge Zamanillo was named the latter facility’s founding director in February 2022. Lisa Sasaki has served as interim director of the women’s museum since March 2021, temporarily leaving her post as head of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.

History indicates Yao has a long road ahead. The last new Smithsonian venue, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, was authorized in 2003 but didn’t open until 2016.

“For decades, people have waited for this opportunity to shine a brighter light on women both famous and unsung who profoundly changed the world,” Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III said in a statement. “Nancy’s proven experience, skill and leadership will be crucial in bringing to life the Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum and enabling it to creatively tell a more robust and complete story about who we are as a nation.”

Under Yao’s leadership, the Museum of Chinese in America raised over $60 million to secure a permanent home in New York City and last year unveiled plans for a sprawling new facility designed by artist and architect Maya Lin. The Ford Foundation in 2020 named the museum, which employs around a dozen staff members, one of “America’s Cultural Treasures.” That nod came as Yao led an effort to salvage the museum’s artifacts following a five-alarm fire in its research space earlier that year.

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Explaining how running a comparatively modest museum prepared her for the Smithsonian assignment, Yao said, “When you’re faced with a lack of resources, and sometimes a marginalized narrative, it feels like it’s a vertical climb every single day.”

In addition to running the Museum of Chinese in America, Yao lectures at Yale’s David Geffen School of Drama, serves as board secretary for the arts nonprofit organization Tessitura Network and sits on the McGraw Hill equity advisory board. She previously was the executive director of the Yale-China Association and has held positions at Goldman Sachs, the Council on Foreign Relations and the Center for Finance and Research Analysis. Yao, who received her bachelor’s degree from Occidental College in Los Angeles and earned a master’s degree from the Yale School of Management, also worked as an associate producer for CNN International early in her career.

As the founding director of the Smithsonian women’s museum, she will be tasked with sourcing a national collection, curating exhibitions and developing a virtual presence before the physical space is built.

“When the opportunity came — and this is a sort of a cliche phrase — I felt like those people I met at the Smithsonian, they saw me,” said Yao, who added that she was first contacted about the position late last year. “I felt like they saw my worth. They saw my ability to contribute to this historic effort. They saw my eclectic mix of skills that are transferrable.”

The women’s museum, with 14 staff members, a 25-member advisory council and a federal budget of $2 million, has already raised more than $55 million, the Smithsonian said. The institution’s Board of Regents announced in October that it had selected two optimal locations for the women’s and Latino museums on the southwest portion of the National Mall, although the Smithsonian needs congressional approval to finalize the sites.

Yao will continue to serve in her role at the Museum of Chinese in America until May, although she plans to make regular visits to D.C. Upon starting her new job in June, Yao said she will poll the staff members, her fellow museum directors and other Smithsonian stakeholders for their thoughts on how the women’s museum should forge ahead.

“It’s actually many, many puzzle pieces, and we need to start putting the puzzle together,” Yao said. “I’ve just got to get the border in first.”