NCH Proposes Changes to National Women's History Museum Commission Bill

On May 16, the National Coalition for History (NCH) sent a letter to Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) concerning a bill (S. 398) she introduced to establish a commission to study the creation of a National Women’s History Museum. NCH strongly supports the bill’s intent of forming the commission, as well as the ultimate goal of building the museum. Nevertheless, NCH expressed concerns that the legislation in its current form leaves out expert historians and the public from the deliberations of the commission, and endorses a problematic fundraising plan.

NCH sent a similar letter to the 24 cosponsors of S. 398.

A companion bill (H.R. 863) recently passed the House by a vote of 383-33.

While it would seem the idea of creating a commission merely to study the concept of building a women’s history museum would be non-controversial, legislation to do so has been stalled in Congress for nearly a decade. Efforts have faltered for a number of reasons as varied as the whether the museum should be located on the National Mall or elsewhere in Washington DC, whether it should be part of the Smithsonian Institution, and to what extent, if at all, the federal government should be involved in funding the museum.

In addition, controversies have arisen surrounding the group that was formed in 1996 to promote the project. National Women’s History Museum, (NWHM) Inc. is a 501 (c) (3) non-profit organization. The legislation calls for the commission to consider the role the NWHM should have in raising funds for the construction of the museum. Yet since its formation, the NWHM has raised only $14 million. The museum itself is currently estimated to cost at least $400 million.

The NWHM has also been criticized for many years for the scholarly quality, or lack thereof, of the women’s history exhibits on its website. In 2011, the NWHM created a Scholarly Advisory Council made up of those with a background in the field of women’s history, museum professionals and others to assist in better defining the museum’s exhibits and programs. Since its inception, the advisory panel has had an uneasy relationship with the NWHM’s President and CEO Joan Wages. The major complaint of the historians was that Wages did not understand women’s history and that she was dismissive of the advice she was receiving from the historians and others on the Scholarly Advisory Council.

A few weeks ago, just prior to the bill being considered by the House, Ms. Wages abolished the Scholarly Advisory Council, which caused uproar in the historical community. Dr. Sonya Michel, a professor of history at the University of Maryland who was among those dismissed by Ms. Wages wrote an article in the New Republic harshly critical of the NHWM and its practices.

The Senate version of the legislation has been referred to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The Subcommittee on National Parks, which has jurisdiction over the bill, is chaired by Senator Mark Udall (D-Colorado). A hearing was held on the bill in July 2013. The Obama administration at the time said they would not oppose the legislation if a reference to a specific site for the museum on the National Mall was removed. That has been done. However, a markup of the bill has yet to be scheduled.

NCH’s letter to Senator Collins, recommended three amendments to strengthen S. 398 prior to markup and the justifications as to why the changes are needed.

1. Section 3(c)(1)(B) of the bill describing the qualifications of commission members should be amended to include the language, “professional historians with expertise in women’s history.”

The bill, as written, does not stipulate that any historians be appointed to the eight-member bipartisan commission studying the creation of the museum. A project to create a new national history museum should involve professional historians with expertise in women’s history from the outset.

2. Section 4 (b)(2)(A) of the bill, which calls for considering a role for the National Women’s History Museum (NWHM) organization regarding fundraising, should be deleted.

  • It is unusual for the authorizing legislation for a museum commission to include the name of a specific non-profit in the section dealing with developing the fundraising plan. For example, this was not the case with the law authorizing the National Museum of the American Latino commission, on which S. 398 is based.
  • To include the NWHM in the language of the bill may be misconstrued to suggest an endorsement that we feel is inappropriate.
  • The NWHM has been mired in controversies regarding many aspects of its activities, from the quality of its scholarship to its ability to raise funds.

3. The legislation should include a mandate that the commission seek public input as part of its deliberations.

There is no clear provision in the legislation to require the commission to seek, or provide the opportunity for, public comment. While seeking public input may be implied, such a requirement should be specifically included in the bill.