The Smithsonian Is Investigating Claims That Its New Women’s History Museum Director Turned a Blind Eye to Harassment at Her Previous Job
Nancy Yao is slated to start at the Smithsonian on June 5.
Nancy Yao is slated to start at the Smithsonian on June 5.
In March, the Smithsonian Institution announced that Nancy Yao, head of New York’s Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA), would be the founding director of the American Women’s History Museum, established by a bill passed by Congress in 2020. But now, there are concerns about how Yao handled allegations of sexual harassment at her previous post that could jeopardize her position.
Speaking to the Washington Post, former employees accused Yao of being “tolerant of boorish, sexually inappropriate behavior by male employees, of failing to take appropriate steps when complaints were reported to her, and of being retaliatory against those who reported harassment allegations.”
MOCA has settled three wrongful-termination lawsuits in the last year and a half from employees who claimed to have been let go in retaliation for speaking out against the sexual harassment of young female workers at the museum. The two alleged harassers—both men—kept their jobs, and Yao even promoted one of them. She also reportedly put the museum’s I.T. supervisor, who had no experience in human resources, in charge of H.R.
The museum did not admit to any wrongdoing in any of the settlements, which remain confidential—but in one of the cases, a judge ordered MOCA to pay the accuser, Justin Onne, $55,000, a figure including attorney fees.
When the Smithsonian hired Yao, it was aware of the lawsuits and their resolution—but does not appear to have spoken to the former staffers about their experiences at MOCA. The institution presumably had to consider how those legal entanglements would appear in the light of recent women’s history, and the #MeToo movement that sparked a reckoning against sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination.
“We take these allegations seriously and want to ensure a fair and more comprehensive review,” a Smithsonian spokesperson told Artnet News in an email, noting that it has hired the Mintz Group, a private investigative firm, to conduct “a more comprehensive review of the underlying facts and will reevaluate the situation once that is complete.”
The settlements were “nuisance agreements,” Yao told the Post. “Any allegations can be made without proof.”
She added that the employees behind the wrongful termination suits were fired due to “severe budget pressures.” But another worker recorded audio of the February 2019 staff meeting where Yao spoke about the termination of two employees and claimed the decision “has nothing to do with our financial standing. We’re doing really, really well.”
Just days earlier, Joyce Huang, the museum’s program director, had complained that the director for programs and guest experience Joseph Duong and facilities manager Erwin Geronimo had sexually harassed a 20-year-old female intern. Duong allegedly sent the intern a text message that said, “If I was a teenage boy I’d sent you a naked pic already.” Another female junior staffer said Geronimo touched her, which made her uncomfortable.
But at the staff meeting, Yao said that Huang and the other fired employee (then Huang’s boyfriend; the two have since married) had exhibited “a pattern of unprofessional behavior, bad judgment, [and] insubordination.” Yao went on to speak about cultural and generational differences surrounding the appropriateness of physical interactions at the workplace, which some workers interpreted as a defense for sexual harassment.
In September 2019, MOCA staff underwent mandatory sexual harassment training, in which they were reportedly instructed to report any past incidents. Grayson Chin, who worked in visitor services and event planning, and Justin Onne, a multimedia producer, came forward—and both were fired, along with a third junior staff member, over a period of less than three months.
In his lawsuit, Chin claimed attorneys were looking into the sexual harassment allegations, and that Yao warned him to “keep the museum’s interests in mind” during a meeting with the lawyer that was ultimately cancelled—part of what Chin called “a toothless, sham internal investigation.”
Chin was the first to sue MOCA for wrongful termination in February 2021. Huang followed in March, and Onne in July. Huang settled in September 2021, Chin in September 2022, and Onne in January 2022.
The news of Yao’s appointment by the Smithsonian came on the heels of $55 million in donations from Alice L. Walton, Tory Burch, Melinda French Gates, and other philanthropists. It could be a decade before the American Women’s History Museum finally opens its doors—and it’s already been nearly as long since the Women’s History Congressional Commission was first established to assess the need for such an institution on the National Mall.
Prior to taking up the top post at MOCA in 2015, Yao worked in finance and foreign affairs, with positions at Goldman Sachs, the Yale-China Association, and the Council on Foreign Relations—but had no museum experience.
Though Yao proved a skilled fundraiser who shepherded the museum through the aftermath of a devastating fire at its archives in 2020 and launched a $118 million project to erect a new Maya Lin-designed building on the site of its old headquarters, her tenure at MOCA was not without controversy.
In 2021, 19 artists pulled their work from a planned exhibition in protest of the museum’s acceptance of $35 million in city funds, which they equated to a bribe to not present opposition to controversial plans to open a jail in Chinatown.
“MOCA is proud to amplify the stories, contributions, and often overlooked history of the Chinese-American diaspora in America—and our sole focus remains on pursuing that mission and opening our future home at 215 Centre Street in New York City,” a spokesperson for the museum told Artnet News in an email.
Yao is slated to leave the museum in late May and start at the Smithsonian on June 5.
Lisa Sasaki, director of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, has been serving as the Women’s History Museum interim director for the past two years.
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