Alum Launches First Smithsonian Museum Dedicated to Women

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By Lindsay Lennon

When Lisa Sasaki ’97 was tapped in March 2021 to serve as interim director of the Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum, she knew she was taking on a daunting task.

The job was, as she puts it: “to build a museum that’s going to be around for as long as there’s an America.”

Of course, planning any museum from the ground up—not to mention one that will stand among the iconic Smithsonian institutions on and around the National Mall in Washington, D.C.—is a long and involved endeavor.

Lisa Sasaki wearing a blue dress and red necklace

“It’s not a quick process; it’s one you have to be very, very thoughtful about,” says Sasaki, who had spent the previous five years as director of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.

Though the museum was established through legislation enacted by Congress in December 2020, Sasaki estimates it will be at least a decade before it’s constructed, filled, and open to visitors.

Among the project’s first challenges is to select a site on (or just off) the Mall, an area already packed with marquee buildings—and situated on a flood plain.

Since the facility is expected to endure for decades and even centuries to come, planners must consider future environmental impacts and the ongoing effects of climate change. Proximity to transportation, nearby restaurants, and other Smithsonian museums also heavily factor into the site selection, Sasaki notes.

In the meantime, Sasaki is working to fulfill the initial guidelines for the museum set forth by Congress, which declared the creation of an institution devoted to women’s contributions as “necessary to more accurately depict the history of the United States,” given that “historical accounts, monuments, memorials, and museums disproportionately represent men’s achievements and contributions and often neglect those of women.”

Lisa Sasaki standing at a podium with the Smithsonian Institute symbol on it
Speaking at a dinner for the museum in 2022. (Joyce N. Boghosian)

The act goes on to cite examples—such as the fact that 82 of the 91 people depicted in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall are male, and that a study of American history textbooks found that just 10 percent of their content is devoted to women’s achievements.

Rather than being frustrated by the museum’s extended timeline, Sasaki embraces it—noting it will allow her team to “take a step back and ask some of those big fundamental questions.” As curators contemplate which items to display—of the 157 million the Smithsonian currently holds—they’ll be soliciting input from women across the country about the stories they’d like to see preserved.

“We’re doing this with America,” she says, “not just for America.”

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A history and archaeology major on the Hill, Sasaki originally envisioned a career traveling the world on archaeological digs—until she did field work in Greece the summer before her senior year.

We’re doing this with America, not just for America.

“What I really connected with was the objects that were coming out of the excavation, not the excavation itself,” Sasaki recalls. “When I talked to my advisor, she said, ‘You know what? It sounds like you’re a museum person.’”

During her senior year, Sasaki landed an internship at Cornell’s Johnson Museum—an experience that set her on a path to leading institutions across the U.S. Her first job was at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, where she started as a volunteer and rose to assistant collections manager while earning a master’s degree in anthropology.

From there, Sasaki went on to serve in various administrative, educational, and program development roles at museums in the western U.S.—most recently, as the Oakland Museum of California’s director of audience and civic engagement.

Lisa Sasaki and Maxine Waters
Chatting with California Rep. Maxine Waters.

When the Smithsonian came calling in 2016, Sasaki headed to D.C. to oversee the Asian Pacific American Center (which mounts exhibitions online and around the country), a post she held until 2021.

One of Sasaki’s first tasks for the nascent women’s museum was overseeing selection of its advisory council, which includes such notables as Lynda Carter of “Wonder Woman” fame, fashion mogul Tory Burch, tennis legend Billie Jean King, and actress-activist Rosario Dawson.

“Museums are ultimately storytellers,” observes Sasaki, a Colorado native. “And in the past, only certain stories were told.”

“In this moment, women have the ability—and deserve the opportunity—to represent ourselves in a way that can be incredibly powerful and inclusive,” Sasaki says, “instead of having history written about us, or for us.” 

Editor’s Note: In July 2023, Sasaki announced that she had been named the Smithsonian’s deputy undersecretary for special projects. In her new role, she’ll help prepare for the commemoration of the U.S.’s 250th birthday in 2026, among other duties.

All images provided.

Published May 26, 2023


  1. Michael Black, Class of 1997

    So glad that my classmate Lisa has been selected for this. Knowing how good she was when we were students, I have no doubt this will be amazing. Looking forward to seeing it, Lisa!

  2. Elizabeth Molloy de Coluby, Class of 1986

    I’m thrilled that a Cornellian will lead this important work. I can’t wait to visit!

  3. Judith Goodman Mecklenburger and Robert Mecklenburger, Class of 1971

    We are truly thrilled by this news of the development of a Smithsonian American Women’s Museum led by a Cornell alumna! During the years in the 1980’s that we lived in DC with two young daughters, we were routine visitors at the Smithsonian. We often commented sadly on the lack of deserved presentation of women’s history and accomplishments. This museum will be a much needed addition!
    ~Judith & Robert Mecklenburger, both Class of ‘71

  4. Dr. Carolyn Williams, Class of 1978

    I am extremely pleased that a Cornellian woman will develop a Smithsonian Museum for Women. A lot of women have become leaders in their fields and need to be recognize for their work and achievements to our society.
    I am a Cornellian who has worked on women studies/history achievement programs and would like to work as an Advisor or Resource.

  5. Judy Krell Freedman, Class of 1979

    So excited to hear a Cornellian will be leading this charge. And happy that a women’s museum will be part of the Smithsonian in my lifetime.

  6. Dr. Marian Ann J. Montgomery, Class of 1982

    As the Founding Curator and Director of Exhibits of The Women’s Museum: An Institute for the Future, which opened in Sept 2000, but unfortunately closed in 2011, I’m thrilled that women’s history will be represented on the national mall and even happier that a Cornellian will lead the effort. If any of my experiences with the earlier museum can be of assistance I hope Ms. Sasaki will call on me.

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