After Controversy, Smithsonian Names Director of Women’s History Museum

elizabeth babcock c c del mar photographics
Elizabeth C. Babcock, current president and CEO of Forever Balboa Park and forthcoming inaugural director at the Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum (photo by Debora Cartwright, courtesy Smithsonian Institution)

The second search for the inaugural director of the Smithsonian Institution American Women’s History Museum (AWHM) has come to an end, nearly one year after the initial appointee, former Museum of Chinese in America leader Nancy Yao, withdrew last June amid an investigation into allegations related to her tenure at the Manhattan institution. Elizabeth C. Babcock, currently the chief executive officer and president of the educational and sustainability organization Forever Balboa Park in San Diego, is slated to begin her role at the Smithsonian on June 3.

Yao had been selected as AWHM’s director in March 2023, immediately ruffling feathers due to her notoriety among activists and residents of New York’s Chinatown neighborhood. The Smithsonian engaged an outside firm to investigate allegations made against Yao during her time as president of the Museum of Chinese in America shortly after her appointment, focusing on a 2021 lawsuit filed by a former museum employee that alleged retaliatory termination after reporting sexual harassment by a coworker. Yao did not begin her role at AWHM on her official start date and withdrew from the post a month later, citing “family issues that require her attention.”

At the Smithsonian, Babcock will be taking over from interim director Melanie Adams of the Anacostia Community Museum. Babcock has over 20 years of leadership experience from her time at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and as the dean of Education at the California Academy of Sciences. Ahead of AWHM’s establishment of a physical space, Babcock will navigate the acquisition of a founding collection, the curation of permanent and temporary exhibitions, and the expansion of digital education resources.

“Cultural institutions play a critical role in discovering and sharing powerful stories about the human experience that can change our lives,” Babcock said in a statement. “I am thrilled to lead a museum that tells the spectacular stories of our nation’s women.”

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