A new Washington museum focused on women’s history has many passionate fans — but Smithsonian Secretary David J. Skorton isn’t one of them.
The head of the world’s largest museum complex announced this month that the Smithsonian Institution will launch a Women’s History Initiative to highlight women’s achievements. But Skorton doesn’t support a stand-alone museum.
“We’re not in a position to initiate any new museums in the near future,” he said.
Skorton announced the new initiative at the National Museum of American History, where House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) formally donated several artifacts to the collection, including the suit she wore at her historic swearing-in as the first female speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Noting that the achievements of women have been “underrated, undervalued and sometimes completely unrecognized,” Skorton pledged that the Smithsonian would hire curators and create programs to elevate the profile of women and their contributions.
Congress included $2 million in its spending plan to support the program, which Skorton says will accomplish the goals of a museum. Advocates, however, view it as a crucial first step in establishing a new facility.
“The Smithsonian’s American Women’s History Initiative is integral in laying the groundwork for a future Smithsonian museum dedicated to American women’s history,” Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) said after Congress passed the spending package. Maloney is the author of the House bill that would establish the museum.
“The effort to more completely and more fairly honor both women and men throughout the Smithsonian institutions is an important one for Congress to fully support,” she said. “After all, how can we expect to inspire women and girls if we do not recognize them?”
Maloney expressed frustration at the Smithsonian’s lack of support for the project.
“We are half of America. Don’t we deserve a museum?” Maloney asked, adding that her bill to establish the museum “has more than 250 bipartisan co-sponsors.” She said Smithsonian officials “should put in writing their support for a women’s museum so that we can proceed.”
Supporters of the museum are hoping to capitalize on the wave of activism sweeping the country as women are taking stands about critical social issues, including gun violence, workplace harassment and equal pay. They want to build on advocacy that led to the creation in 1996 of a nonprofit organization, National Women’s History Museum, that supports educational and public programs and hosts an annual awards ceremony. That group has more than 55,000 individual donors, according to its website. In 2016, a bipartisan congressional commission found widespread interest — and private donors — for a stand-alone museum to continue this work.
Museum advocates point to the wildly successful National Museum of African American History and Culture to press their case. Previous Smithsonian leaders were opposed to that effort, saying African American stories could be told in exhibitions and programs across its various museums. It took 15 years to get a bill passed, and an additional 13 years to get it built. The museum opened in September 2016, and has welcomed 3 million visitors and attracted many new supporters to the Smithsonian.
Jane Abraham, who chaired a congressional commission that recommended a new Smithsonian museum, remains optimistic.
“A lot of other sectors are doing so many admirable programs. It’s time for the political arena to make a statement,” she said. “This is the best time ever for Congress to get together on this.”
Abraham’s panel created a 10-year plan that would lead to a new Smithsonian museum.
The museum “needs to be part of the national family of museums. That’s a key finding of our commission,” Abraham said.
The commission advocated for the Smithsonian to begin its work with an initiative similar to the one Skorton announced. Abraham said that she would have preferred a two-track approach — with Congress working to establish the building as the Smithsonian develops the programs — but that she understands Skorton’s position. The Smithsonian has difficulty maintaining the 10.5 million square feet it operates, Skorton has said.
“I am not put off at all by the secretary. He does not have bandwidth to take on a new museum right now,” she said. Smithsonian officials “need to absorb this new museum they just opened. All of that is reasonable.”
In its report to Congress, the commission proposed a privately funded museum, rather than a 50-50 federal-private partnership, such as the one that created the African American Museum. The proposal was meant to sweeten the deal for lawmakers, who would not have to pledge money. But that formula doesn’t suit Smithsonian leaders.
“Building a museum completely on private philanthropy goes against what we have done in the past,” Skorton said.
The Smithsonian plans to announce details about the women’s initiative — including specific exhibitions and a plan to hire curators across institutions that will focus on women’s history — by the end of the year. Skorton said the Smithsonian is raising private funds to supplement the federal grant.
“I know what I can do,” Skorton said, “and what I want to do is work hard and in a focused way, immediately, to tell the story of women’s history.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story said that Jane Abramson chaired a congressional commission that recommended a new Smithsonian women’s history museum. Her name is Jane Abraham.