The National Women’s History Museum Is Swamped in Controversy, Without Even Existing

Historians claim museum staff fired them before they could resign, just as congressional approval looks likely.

National Women's History Museum President Joan Wages (right) poses with actress Jennifer Siebel Newson and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta at the NWHM cocktail reception honoring Newson and Huerta on October 25, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.
National Journal
March 21, 2014, 1 a.m.

After more than 17 long years of work, ad­voc­ates may at long last es­tab­lish a Na­tion­al Wo­men’s His­tory Mu­seum on the Na­tion­al Mall — or at least get a little closer.

But cel­eb­ra­tion over the news that House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor will bring le­gis­la­tion to the floor this year es­tab­lish­ing a com­mis­sion for the mu­seum is be­ing over­shad­owed. There’s a fierce battle di­vid­ing the mu­seum and its his­tor­i­ans, an in­cid­ent that wo­men’s his­tory act­iv­ist Den­ise Baer is re­fer­ring to as the “Fri­day night mas­sacre of wo­men’s his­tory,” a ref­er­ence to the Nix­on ad­min­is­tra­tion’s “Sat­urday Night Mas­sacre.”

“Wo­men’s His­tory Mu­seum Fires His­tor­i­ans,” reads an email sent to re­port­ers this week by Sonya Michel, a pro­fess­or at the Uni­versity of Mary­land (Col­lege Park) and one of the his­tor­i­ans re­cently let go by the forth­com­ing mu­seum.

In one sense, that is true (de­pend­ing on your defin­i­tion of “fires”). The mu­seum or­gan­iz­a­tion’s pres­id­ent and CEO, Joan Wages, dis­solved the 18-mem­ber Ad­vis­ory Coun­cil in a March 14 let­ter. But the real story be­hind the dis­missals of the wo­men’s his­tor­i­ans, all of whom are fe­male, is much more com­plic­ated.

It starts with Wages, a former lob­by­ist who got in­volved with the wo­men’s mu­seum or­gan­iz­a­tion in the late 1990s. After sev­er­al failed pushes for le­gis­la­tion on the Hill that would al­low the mu­seum to be­gin build­ing on the Na­tion­al Mall (they have their eyes on a spot off of 12th Street, near the Freer Gal­lery of Art, among oth­er pos­sib­il­it­ies), Wages and her or­gan­iz­a­tion began to re­think their le­gis­lat­ive strategy in 2010.

Fol­low­ing in the paths of the re­l­at­ively new Na­tion­al Mu­seum of the Amer­ic­an In­di­an (opened in 2004), the Na­tion­al Mu­seum of Afric­an Amer­ic­an His­tory and Cul­ture (set to open next year), and the Na­tion­al Mu­seum of the Amer­ic­an Latino, which is also in its plan­ning stages, Wages took a big step back. Those or­gan­iz­a­tions went through the pro­cess of cre­at­ing a con­gres­sion­al com­mis­sion to se­cure a site and fund­ing for the pro­jects long be­fore they cre­ated a coun­cil of schol­ars to de­cide what ex­hib­its would ac­tu­ally ap­pear with­in the mu­seums walls.

With the help of Reps. Car­o­lyn Malo­ney, D-N.Y., Mar­sha Black­burn, R-Tenn., and oth­er mem­bers of Con­gress, Wages and her or­gan­iz­a­tion are now push­ing le­gis­la­tion to es­tab­lish a com­mis­sion of their own. The bill, which is sim­il­ar to le­gis­la­tion be­ing con­sidered in the Sen­ate, would al­low Con­gress to ap­point eight his­tor­i­ans and mu­seum ex­perts to cre­ate a re­port on how much the mu­seum will cost, where it will be loc­ated, and wheth­er it should join the Smith­so­ni­an.

It’s a small step — the re­port won’t be due un­til 18 months after the bill passes — but it’s how the pro­cess works, Wages says.

“The point of the form­a­tion of the coun­cil was to work on the per­man­ent ex­hib­its, the ex­hib­its that would be in the per­man­ent site, so not hav­ing the per­man­ent site and not hav­ing the ex­pect­a­tion that we’re go­ing to get the per­man­ent site in the next few years any­way, we’re not work­ing on that any longer.”¦ Once we can point to a site and say, this is go­ing to be it, then re­sources are much more read­ily avail­able than they are now,” she said.

Michel, one of the his­tor­i­ans, isn’t buy­ing it. “We be­lieve that the real reas­on for the dis­sol­u­tion was our steady cri­ti­cism of the mu­seum’s prac­tices and con­tent, and the fact that many of us were plan­ning to resign pub­licly be­cause of con­cerns about its most re­cent ex­hib­it,” Michel said in the re­lease she emailed to re­port­ers this week.

The ex­hib­it, “Path­ways to Equal­ity,” fo­cuses on the founders of the wo­men’s rights move­ment, in­clud­ing Eliza­beth Cady Stan­ton, Susan B. An­thony, Har­ri­ett Beech­er Stowe, and oth­ers. All are white wo­men, Michel notes.

“We felt that they were us­ing our names, our prestige,” Michel ad­ded in a phone in­ter­view. Michel and some of her col­leagues be­lieve that Wages was tipped off to their im­pend­ing resig­na­tion and fired them be­fore they could get a chance to step down, thereby pub­licly hu­mi­li­at­ing the mu­seum’s staff.

“This we ac­tu­ally found pretty shock­ing. Be­cause they nev­er voiced any cri­ti­cism to us what­so­ever.”¦ We had no idea that they were plan­ning to resign. This is all quite a sur­prise to us,” Wages said.

Michel says that she and sev­er­al of her col­leagues penned two let­ters to Wages com­plain­ing about the qual­ity of the mu­seum’s on­line ex­hib­its and news­let­ters, which went un­answered.

The “Path­ways to Equal­ity” on­line ex­hib­it, Michel said in a phone in­ter­view, was “am­a­teur­ish,” con­tained nu­mer­ous fac­tu­al er­rors, and “white-wash[ed]” wo­men’s his­tory; she called the mu­seum staff’s view of wo­men’s his­tory “sopho­mor­ic, to say the least.” The ex­hib­it was launched without any vet­ting by the ad­vis­ory com­mit­tee.

The er­rors Michel poin­ted to have since been altered, ac­cord­ing to a mu­seum spokes­wo­man, though she dis­puted the pro­fess­or’s char­ac­ter­iz­a­tion. “We do not agree with Sonya’s as­ser­tion that the ori­gin­al copy was fac­tu­ally in­cor­rect. For ex­ample, while the term ‘ab­ol­i­tion­ist,’ may not have ex­is­ted when Har­riet Beech­er Stowe was born, the dic­tion­ary today defines an ab­ol­i­tion­ist as a per­son who ad­voc­ated or sup­por­ted the ab­ol­i­tion of slaver — which Har­riet’s fam­ily did,” spokes­wo­man Susan Murphy said in an email.

The ex­hib­it was not vet­ted by the coun­cil, Wages said, be­cause she and oth­er mem­bers of the mu­seum’s staff signed a nondis­clos­ure agree­ment with Google, which sponsored the ex­hib­it. What’s more, Wages says she would not have con­sul­ted with the ad­vis­ory coun­cil even in the ab­sence of a nondis­clos­ure.

“A schol­ars ad­vis­ory coun­cil is brought to­geth­er to provide guid­ance, they are not paid staff, they are not the ones who are re­spons­ible for the work product that goes up on be­half of a mu­seum. I mean, it’s your staff that’s re­spons­ible for that, and our pro­gram dir­ect­or is not only a his­tor­i­an by pro­fes­sion, but she’s our cur­at­or,” Wages said. “It was not for someone to sign off on.”

Michel ques­tions Pro­gram Dir­ect­or Eliza­beth Maurer’s cre­den­tials. Maurer pre­vi­ously worked as the dir­ect­or of op­er­a­tions at the Mu­seum of Crime and Pun­ish­ment, but has no his­tory of work­ing in wo­men’s stud­ies. She re­ceived her Mas­ters’ in Mu­seum Edu­ca­tion from George Wash­ing­ton Uni­versity, ac­cord­ing to her Linked­In page. “I think she told me she had taken one or two courses in wo­men’s his­tory,” Michel said.

Maurer stud­ied “wo­men’s his­tory, World War II home front, and wo­men’s World War II mil­it­ary ser­vice” at Wil­li­am & Mary Col­lege in 1992, ac­cord­ing to her Linked­In page.

Michel wor­ries that without cre­den­tialed wo­men’s his­tor­i­ans in­volved, the mu­seum plan will be easy to dis­miss. Un­like oth­er pro­jects, a wo­men’s mu­seum, in par­tic­u­lar, needs to identi­fy a very spe­cif­ic pur­pose to gain sup­port in Con­gress, she ar­gues. “I think that, you know, the Holo­caust Mu­seum, most people have a pretty good idea [of what that will en­tail] … the Afric­an-Amer­ic­an his­tory mu­seum, most people have a pretty good idea. I think wo­men’s his­tory is a little more elu­sive, and I think you really need to ar­tic­u­late a vis­ion be­fore you get people on board,” she said.

Michel may have a point, giv­en what Rush Limbaugh said about the pos­sib­il­ity of wo­men’s his­tory mu­seum this week, sug­gest­ing that wo­men already have mu­seums all across the coun­try: shop­ping malls.

Re­gard­less, Wages and her col­leagues have high hopes for ap­prov­al this Con­gress. The House Nat­ur­al Re­sources Com­mit­tee will con­sider the bill on Tues­day, with Can­tor vow­ing to bring it to the floor later this year. Giv­en a midterm-elec­tion year in which both parties are work­ing to reach out to fe­male voters, the mu­seum pro­ject could find strong sup­port in both cham­bers. The mu­seum would con­tin­ue to be privately fun­ded.

Wages is op­tim­ist­ic about pas­sage in the Sen­ate as well, where the bill is cur­rently be­ing con­sidered by the En­ergy Com­mit­tee, which will soon be taken over by Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., with Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska as rank­ing mem­ber. Both sen­at­ors are strong sup­port­ers of the mu­seum ef­fort.

Christopher Snow Hopkins contributed to this article.
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