NWHM RESPONSE TO RECENT CRITICISM

April 15, 2014 -- In light of the current campaign to discredit NWHM and its efforts to encourage passage of legislation that would create a Congressional Commission to produce a feasible plan for the national women's history museum, NWHM has compiled the following point-by-point response to the accusations that have been made. We are disappointed and more importantly, concerned that various groups and individuals have formed an opinion and taken a position without ever contacting NWHM for comment and the opportunity to refute the various accusations. We hope that those who have been swayed by one woman's argument will take the time to read NWHM's response and weigh the facts. Click here for NWHM statement regarding dissolution of Scholars Advisory Council.


DISSOLUTION OF THE SCHOLARS ADVISORY COUNCIL (SAC)

Q: Why were the scholars fired?
A: The scholars served on a voluntary basis. They were not fired. The Scholars Advisory Council (SAC) was dissolved as a result of a change in the legislative strategy that put the need for counsel regarding the exhibit plan in the physical museum years away.



Q: Why was the Council dissolved so suddenly? Former Councilmembers believe it was because you knew they were about to resign, which would have been an embarrassment to you and your Board.
A: This was not a sudden decision. When asked during a December 2013 House Hearing if NWHM would consider the possibility of adopting a different structure should the Commission recommend one, NWHM President and CEO Joan Wages responded in the affirmative. Subsequent discussions held during the last few months with the Board of Directors, staff, and various stakeholders made it clear that it is simply too early to develop the Museum's exhibit plan (i.e., governance structure, plans for exhibits, architecture, etc.) as this would be getting ahead of the Commission or putting the cart before the horse, if you will. It was in deference to Congress that we decided to discontinue work on developing the exhibit plan. Because the SAC was created to advise NWHM on the exhibits and programs that would exist in the physical museum, which we now know will not exist until quite far in the future, it was determined that the committee should be dissolved.



Q: Dr. Sonya Michel has noted that the SAC was disbanded just as NWHM was about to obtain preliminary congressional approval for the project, which it has been seeking for 16 years. Was this purposeful?
A: We were not alerted about the House Committee hearing until several days after we disbanded the SAC.



Q: Did you know that Councilmembers were planning to resign?
A: Yes, we had heard this was being discussed. However, we had been hearing this for much of the last year.



Q: Does this set the Museum back even further?
A: Not at all. The governance and structure of the Museum will not be established until a Congressional Commission issues its recommendations. The Congressional Commission will be convened following the passage of current legislation. The Commission will take approximately 12–18 months after convening to make its recommendations regarding a feasible plan, location, and organizational structure for the National Women's History Museum.




SCHOLARS ADVISORY COUNCIL - BACKGROUND


Q: When was the SAC formed?
A: The SAC was formed in 2011 upon the recommendation of a leading external museum consultant at a time when we believed we were much closer to building the museum.



Q: What was the purpose/role of the SAC?
A: The Scholars Advisory Council was created to advise NWHM on the exhibits and programs that would exist in the physical museum.



Q: Wasn't a Scholars Council convened previous to this one?
A: Yes, a Scholars Council was formed in 1999 when we were just getting started. Frankly, we did not have the resources to coordinate the council at the time.



Q: The relationship with the most recent SAC was contentious. Why?
A: First, to be clear, the contention was certainly not across the board. That said, some believed the Council should have a larger role and greater authority in the organization and its operations than was appropriate.



Q: Can you provide an example?
A: Some of the scholars believed the SAC should approve all program decisions and that it should have the authority to make hiring and firing decisions. Such responsibilities are inappropriate for volunteers.



Q: Why isn't it appropriate to have scholars on the Board of Directors?
A: While it might make sense at some point, the Board of Directors, like many Founding Boards, is currently focused on advocacy and fundraising rather than the exhibits and programs that will one day reside in the Museum. That being said, we are actively working to identify a university president to become a member of the Board since we believe a combination of academic, business, and fundraising expertise would add a great amount of value to the Board.



Q: Can you provide examples of other museums that have been developed without scholar involvement?
A: Assuming this refers to other museums that have been developed without scholar involvement at the same point of development NWHM is at currently, the answer is "Yes." In fact, we encourage you to look at examples of recently constituted museums that have successfully navigated the legislative process.  Museums such as the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Museum of the Marine Corps did not hire museum staff, establish advisory councils and scholar committees, or develop museum plans until after their legislation passed and they had reached critical fundraising milestones. 

Dr. Lonnie Bunch, the Museum Director of the National Museum of African American History, was not hired until two years after the Museum's legislation had passed; only after the legislation passed was a scholar council created.

The National Museum of the American Latino remains under the aegis of a Friends group. The Commission on this Museum has submitted its recommendations to Congress. There is not yet a Museum Director or a scholar council.




INVOLVEMENT OF HISTORIANS/SCHOLARS IN THE MUSEUM


Q: Do more historians need to be hired?
A: At some point, yes. Again, this will be determined by the Congressional Commission.



Q: Why is there no historian on staff at the Museum? Why isn't there a Program Director with a PhD in Women's History?
A: We certainly considered including a women's historian on the staff. We conducted a two-year nationwide search to identify a scholar with expertise in women's history and museums to serve as the Program Director. While we identified two potential candidates (neither of whom had extensive museum experience), neither was willing to relocate to Washington, D.C. for a part-time position. We then determined that since we already had strong working relationships with women's history scholars throughout the country, we most needed someone with museum experience who could present existing scholarship in an understandable and relevant way and could generate enthusiasm and support for women's history.

One of our scholars, Dr. Sonya Michel, was invited to serve on the search committee and subsequently interviewed and approved the hiring of our current Program Director.



Q: A few of your former Councilmembers have questioned NWHM’s Program Director’s qualifications for the position. Are those criticisms valid?
A: Certainly not. NWHM’s Program Director holds a Master's Degree in Museum Education from The George Washington University (GW) and has extensive museum experience. The role of the Program Director is not to produce scholarship but to produce exhibits and programs that will deliver existing scholarship to the general public in an understandable, relevant, and inspiring manner. Our Program Director has fulfilled this role quite successfully. For example, she created and leads NWHM's discussion series, which is presented in partnership with GW. She has chosen topics, identified and engaged participating scholars, and produced four programs to-date. Our partners at GW have praised the series.

To use an analogy, requiring a PhD for the Program Director’s position is akin to requiring a reporter who covers Congress to hold a PhD in Political Science rather than Journalism.



Q: Isn't your mission to educate, inspire, empower, and shape the future by integrating women's distinctive history into the culture and history of the United States? How can NWHM achieve that without the expertise of women's history scholars?
A: We regularly engage women's history scholars with expertise specific to our various programs and exhibits.




CONGRESSIONAL COMMISSION


Q: What would be the role of the Congressional Commission?
A: The Congressional Commission would be charged with producing a feasible plan for a national women’s history museum, which would include the governance, estimated cost, location, and organizational structure of the museum.



Q: Who would be appointed to the Commission?
A: According to the current legislation, the Commission would be comprised of eight people appointed by Congress—two each from the majorities and minorities in the House and Senate.  Historians, museum professionals, and those with fundraising expertise may fill these positions.  We are, however, open to expanding the size of the commission, and we support including a historian and/or a women's history scholar.



Q: How would the Commission be funded?
A: NWHM has offered to underwrite the costs of the Commission.



Q: Will members of the public have an opportunity to provide input?
A: Yes, the bill provides for a public forum to be held to solicit public comment for the Commission to consider.




MOVING FORWARD


Q: What are the next steps for the Museum?
A: We are working with Congress to encourage the passage of the current legislation, which has attracted solid bi-partisan support. 

We are also continuing to present various programs and events, including our recent partnerships with Google, receptions, presentations, and Initiating Change/Adapting to Change, which is our ongoing discussion series presented in partnership with GW.




POINT-BY-POINT REBUTTAL TO DR. SONYA MICHEL'S OpEd (The New Republic, April 7, 2014)


Dr. Michel's Opinion:
Dr. Michel stated that "Wages and lawmakers seem to think that a women's history museum doesn't need women's historians. Without them, however, historians fear that the exigencies of congressional politics and day-to-day fundraising will lead to the creation of a museum that seeks to be as non-controversial as possible—whatever the cost to its scholarly reputation."

NWHM:
This could not be further from the truth. Of course NWHM recognizes the need to engage scholars, and the Museum does so regularly. For example, we presented three programs during National Women’s History Month that included scholars. Our discussion series, conducted in partnership with The George Washington University, has included scholars in each of its four programs to-date. The feature story in our upcoming Spring newsletter was written by a women’s history scholar. To view a list of historians and scholars engaged with NWHM during the last several years, click here.



Dr. Michel's Opinion:
According to Dr. Michel, "Much of the museum's public presence over the past few years—online, in print, and in the events it sponsors—had communicated what we considered to be an amateur, superficial, and inaccurate understanding of U.S. women's history.

NWHM:
This opinion was never communicated to us. We would have welcomed input from members of the SAC regarding concerns about our online, print, and event content and would have incorporated their comments. In addition, Dr. Michel criticized a statement on our homepage regarding rewriting women's history that has been on the site for years. Not once in the three years the SAC was in existence were we made aware that Dr. Michel or any of the other scholars had concerns regarding this statement. In regards to events, we disagree that any have been amateurish, superficial, or inaccurate. Click here for a summary of 25 programs, panels, lectures, exhibits, and connected classrooms NWHM has produced in collaboration with historians and scholars.

Furthermore, NWHM has been working with a leading web-design firm since November 2013 to redesign and re-launch NWHM.org. That said, the content on the website is intended for a general audience and is not intended to be scholarly. In fact, a number of our scholars agreed that they did not expect that NWHM.org would or should be scholarly. Finally, it should also be noted that many of the online exhibits were developed by or in collaboration with historians and scholars. We sincerely wish the scholars would have offered to correct any inaccuracies when they were discovered. In fact, non-SAC historians have contacted us regularly to suggest edits.



Dr. Michel's Opinion:
A subset of the SAC sent a letter to NWHM's president and Board of Directors last summer to express concerns and request greater engagement in NWHM. Dr. Michel claimed there were few results.

NWHM:
In actuality, the letter Dr. Michel referenced was addressed with a very detailed response, which resulted in a meeting held at NWHM's administrative offices attended by NWHM’s President and Program Director and two members of the SAC. We felt the meeting went well and that the scholars left feeling their questions and concerns had been fully addressed.  Several months later, we received another detailed letter absent the signatures of the scholars we had met with. Again, we provided a detailed response. Upon receiving a third letter, we decided it would be best to schedule a series of online meetings to discuss opportunities for scholarly involvement in the museum. The meetings were scheduled on different dates and times to allow for scheduling and time zone conflicts. Only 3 members of the SAC attended. We then forwarded the PowerPoint presentation developed for the online meetings to the SAC members.  The presentation detailed scholar involvement in the Museum over the last year and opportunities for involvement this year and next year. When we asked Dr. Michel what she thought of the presentation, she responded that she never reviewed the slides.



Dr. Michel's Opinion:
Dr. Michel wrote that "Pathways to Equality: The U.S. Women's Rights Movement Emerges," NWHM's new online exhibit launched in conjunction with the Google Cultural Institute, was "riddled with historical errors and inaccuracies."  Dr. Michel also expressed concern that the SAC was never informed that the exhibit was being developed and that scholars were not given an opportunity to vet it.

NWHM:
NWHM was invited to submit an online exhibit less than 30 days before it was due. Our staff was required (by Google) to sign a confidentiality agreement, and we worked with the limited number of artifacts in our physical collection. Due to limited time and resources, we elected to reconfigure and repurpose our existing online exhibit entitled "This isn’t Right! Women Reform Leaders." We regret erroneously stating that Harriet Beecher Stowe was "born into a family of abolitionists," when in fact her father was not an abolitionist until Harriet was a young adult. We would appreciate receiving information regarding the other historical errors and inaccuracies Dr. Michel claims the exhibit is "riddled with" so that we might make necessary corrections.



Dr. Michel's Opinion:
Dr. Michel claimed that contrary to previous statements by NWHM, the National Museum of African American History and Culture had noted scholars on board well before they acquired a site on the National Mall.

NWHM:
NWHM has stated that the National Museum of African American History and Culture did not have a scholar's council or a Museum Director and that the interpretive (or exhibit) plan was not developed until after the legislation had passed. We stand by that statement. In fact, the legislation forming a Commission was passed, and the study resulting from the Commission's work led to further legislation. This made the Museum part of the Smithsonian Institute and allowed The National Museum of African American History and Culture in consultation with the Smithsonian to choose the site on which the Museum is currently being built. It was at that point that a Museum Director, staff, various advisory panels, and the design firm (Ralph Appelbaum Associates) were engaged.



Dr. Michel's Opinion:
Dr. Michel stated that she feared "the museum will eschew analytic rigor to avoid irking donors or elected officials."  

NWHM:
People on the left and on the right have spent a great deal of time criticizing the exhibits of a museum that has not been built yet. There will always be debate across the political spectrum about the Museum's content. This debate is clearly important; however, those decisions will be left to the Museum's curators. Discussions at this stage are simply premature.



Dr. Michel's Opinion:
Dr. Michel criticized Ms. Wages's remarks during a 2011 lecture, stating that Ms. Wages "cheerfully denied having any professional knowledge of women's history but averred that the museum 'is not only a dream come true for historians, but for all women in this country.'"

NWHM:
We are not sure what fault Dr. Michel finds with those remarks when she admits to having been excited that same year to being invited to collaborate "on such an important project."



Dr. Michel's Opinion:
Dr. Michel revisited a criticism made by the Huffington Post several years ago suggesting that by serving as President and CEO of NWHM and as President of its Board of Directors, Ms. Wages violated best practices for non-profit and for-profit corporations.

NWHM:
While Dr. Michel implied that serving in all three roles is not an acceptable practice, the fact is that the presidents and CEOs of a number of non-profits and many for-profits also serve as the chairs of those organizations' Boards. For example, Ret. Brigadier General Wilma Vaught has served for many years as President, CEO, and Chair of the Women's Military Memorial, which is a memorial established by Congress.  Craig W. Floyd serves as Chair and CEO of the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund, which is working with Congress on a National Law Enforcement Museum.



Dr. Michel's Opinion:
Dr. Michel wrote that she had concerns regarding the initial concept designs for NWHM, which were presented by Ralph Appelbaum Associates. Specifically, "Appelbaum staffers circulated a glossy prospectus with a collage of famous female figures on the cover and a mock-up of what the museum might look like inside. According to the large-font text, the central theme of the museum was to be the struggle for women's rights and the triumph of the suffrage movement."

NWHM:
The "mock-up" Dr. Michel referenced was what is known as an initial concept design. Its purpose was to serve as a marketing development tool of sorts. An initial concept design rarely resembles the final design since it is typically years before a building is in place; in addition, design trends, technologies, and interpretive plans can change dramatically in the time between initial planning and final design. In fact, the firm that produces the initial concept design is not necessarily the firm that develops the final design.



Dr. Michel's Opinion:
In reference to the initial concept design, Dr. Michel wrote that "the historians found the focus on 'great women' and the acquisition of formal political rights to be outdated and much too narrow to capture the manifold ways in which women have shaped U.S. history."

NWHM:
We agree with this statement whole-heartedly, which is why we moved away from that concept design.



Dr. Michel's Opinion:
Dr. Michel stated, "We were also dismayed to note that nearly all of the women pictured on the brochure were white, and several (Mary Wollstonecraft, Olympe de Gouges) not actually American. This sort of thinking about history typifies the NWHM style."

NWHM:
NWHM did not create the initial design concept. For Dr. Michel to imply that NWHM does not promote diversity because its design firm presented a brochure with images of only white women and that this "typifies the NWHM style" is outrageous and insulting.  A review of the biographies and exhibits on our website, our social media activity, the panelists and moderators for our discussion series, and our moderators and various honorees make it clear that Dr. Michel's implication was simply a cheap shot.



Dr. Michel's Opinion:
Dr. Michel expressed concern about the following statement on NWHM's homepage: "Women's history isn't meant to rewrite history. The objective is to promote scholarship and expand our knowledge of American history." Dr. Michel wrote, "While most women's historians would agree with the second part, we would disagree with the first. We have set out to rewrite history."

NWHM:
The statement Dr. Michel referenced has been on NWHM's home page for several years; however, neither she nor any of her SAC peers ever voiced concern about it.



Dr. Michel's Opinion:
Dr. Michel wrote that most women's history scholars abandoned simply attempting "to find female parallels to prominent male figures and patterns of accomplishment" and instead "have developed new categories to analyze American history through women’s eyes, such as how they used their own organizations to shape fundamental protections like mothers' pensions and the Fair Labor Standards Act, how they reconfigured family life as part of the 19th-century modernizing process, and how their labor—paid and unpaid—has restructured the American economy."

NWHM:
NWHM works to include the stories of prominent individual women and women as a collective group. This is clear throughout all our activities, including our online exhibits and biographies, social media, and events. It is important to note that while women’s history scholars have extensive knowledge of their areas of expertise, we, like many institutions, need to tailor content to specific audiences, such as the general public, middle school or high school students/teachers, etc. While we have great respect for the tremendous research women's history scholars have conducted and produced, few audiences outside academia would be inclined to dive into extensive scholarly papers and presentations. Furthermore, research shows that visitors to websites and social media opt for content that is short and to the point. To that end, NWHM's online content is most effective when limited to highlights and overviews with links to external source material for those who want to explore further.



Dr. Michel's Opinion:
Dr. Michel asserted that the scholars' offers to help were systematically rebuffed and that their calls for NWHM to develop "'a deeper and more institutionalized relationship with the affiliated scholars,' appoint a 'prominent scholar of women's history' and a 'prominent academic administrator' to the board, and hire a PhD in women's history as the museum's director of programs" were rejected.

NWHM:
As stated previously, the SAC was assembled for the purpose of advising NWHM on programs and exhibits for the physical building. While Dr. Michel was aware of that when she was invited to join the SAC, she almost immediately demanded that the SAC be given a greater role and more authority at NWHM. We disagreed with this idea. In regard to the scholars' offers to help, we would ask why there were no offers to correct the inaccuracies Dr. Michel claims exist in our online exhibits during the three years the SAC was engaged? When we asked the scholars to assist us in identifying a Program Director with expertise in women's history and museums, why did no one on the SAC respond? When the quote on our homepage regarding "rewriting history" concerned Dr. Michel, why did she not bring it to our attention? When we scheduled a series of virtual meetings to discuss scholar engagement, why did only three scholars participate? Clearly, Dr. Michel had no interest in serving on the SAC. Rather, it appears her intention was/is to re-create and run NWHM.



Dr. Michel's Opinion:
Dr. Michel claimed NWHM hired a Program Director who lacked a PhD and that although the director possessed an MA in museum education, she had little formal training in women’s history. 

NWHM:
Dr. Michel has raised this issue time and time again; however, she neglects to reference the fact that she not only interviewed our current Program Director but also recommended her hiring.



Dr. Michel's Opinion:
Dr. Michel claimed that at two recent House hearings on the bill, witnesses and lawmakers mainly traded platitudes about American women's accomplishments.

NWHM:
This speaks to the importance of tailoring messages to an audience. Reps. Blackburn and Maloney and Ms. Wages were each allotted five minutes to deliver their testimony to the House Committee. These five minutes were provided to deliver a compelling argument that would convince committee members of the need for a national women's history museum. The five minutes were not provided to educate the committee members about women's history. Citing prominent women in American history—many of whom most Americans have not heard of—was, in these instances, the most effective way to deliver the message that there is much we do not know about how women contributed to building and shaping our nation.



Dr. Michel's Opinion:
Dr. Michel claimed that "this kind of exchange indicates a lack of serious engagement with the subject that is not only disheartening but also shows disrespect for the tremendous scholarly effort that has gone into building their field over the past 40 years."

NWHM:
While we have great respect for the work women's history scholars have done to build the field over the past 40 years, we do not believe they own "women’s history." No specific groups can own history. History belongs to the collective society. There is certainly tremendous value in the knowledge these scholars have produced, but that scholarship must be translated into lessons the general public can and will digest. The majority of Americans will not be drawn to in-depth scholarly research. It is critical to recognize the distinction between academia and the general public.



Dr. Michel's Opinion:
Dr. Michel wrote that "the American Historical Association also weighed in, stating in a letter to the chairs of the two House committees that have jurisdiction over the bill, 'We strongly believe that any project to create a new national history museum should involve professional historians from the outset.'" 

NWHM:
As previously stated, we have worked with (and will continue to work with) professional historians. We cannot imagine the Commission would not call for the extensive engagement of historians and other women's history experts when it is time to develop the exhibit plan.

Furthermore, we find it ironic that Dr. Michel has taken to using the term "historians" in her campaign against NWHM. In our experience, Dr. Michel regularly undermined the work of historians and insisted that we work only with "scholars." (Those holding PhD's.)



Dr. Michel's Opinion:
Dr. Michel stated that "without presenting a more robust view of women’s history, the NWHM's leadership is unlikely to open pursestrings."

NWHM:
We strongly disagree. As noted earlier, the general public is interested in learning about women's history in relevant and understandable ways. We have seen how enthusiastic people become when they learn about Sybil Ludington, Hedy Lamarr, and Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper or about positive societal changes such as the pasteurization of milk or vaccinations created by women as a collective group.