After a second search, a Smithsonian museum names a new leader

When Elizabeth Babcock walks visitors through San Diego’s vast Balboa Park, the reminiscences pour forth.

“My child did their quinceañera here,” they tell Babcock, president and CEO of Forever Balboa Park, a nonprofit engaged in revitalization of the 1,200-acre expanse of gardens and walking trails. “I had my wedding photos taken here.”

A Babcock tour of the beloved park tends to include a swing by the park’s bedraggled Botanical Building, a 109-year-old structure that once featured arcades, Palladian windows and a picturesque pergola, but had fallen into disrepair and been shuttered. In her two years as head of the nonprofit, Babcock set about raising money to fix the iconic building, an ongoing effort that recently led to the reinstallation of its salvaged 2,000-pound copper cupola.

End of carousel

Now Babcock, who on Tuesday was named director of the Smithsonian’s yet-to-be-built American Women’s History Museum, is set to take on another repair project. She will head a museum that was shaken last summer by the withdrawal of its incoming founding director, Nancy Yao, following a Washington Post investigation of her handling of sexual harassment allegations at a New York museum. (Yao denied retaliating against whistleblowers and said she was withdrawing due to family issues.)

“All of that preceded me,” Babcock said in an interview with The Washington Post on Monday. “I am focused on the future.”

Babcock, who is moving to Washington and is scheduled to assume her new role June 3, envisions a museum that fills in what she sees as blanks in the story of American women.

“One of the things that was really compelling for me is just the notion that for girls, for instance, who are in school, they open their history textbooks and they don’t see themselves represented the way they should,” Babcock said.

She will be leading a museum that exists online-only via a website. The Smithsonian has estimated the museum’s physical building, possibly along the Tidal Basin or the National Mall, will not open to the public for at least a decade. Its 22-person staff works out of a downtown office building because its previous space at the Smithsonian Castle, headquarters of the cultural institution, is being renovated. (The Smithsonian’s women’s history museum is unaffiliated with the National Women’s History Museum in Virginia.)

“Having served as a founding director, I know how this position requires clear vision, leadership and endless enthusiasm to bring history to life,” Lonnie G. Bunch III, secretary of the Smithsonian who headed the National Museum of African American History and Culture, said in a statement. “Dr. Babcock has all three and so much more.”

As head of the women’s history museum, which now has a $7 million budget, Babcock — like most museum bosses — will bear the weight of pressure to raise money. It’s an area familiar to her from her tenure at the Balboa Park nonprofit and from her 12-year stint at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, where she was chief public engagement officer and dean of public education. (Babcock also served eight years before moving to California at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, where she worked as a vice president of education and library collections and as an applied anthropologist.)

At the San Francisco science museum, which is housed at Golden Gate Park, Babcock helped secure a $9 million donation in 2018 from Arthur Rock, a tech-company venture capitalist and philanthropist, to expand a program that provides free field trips to the museum for all San Francisco elementary-school students and passes to their parents. But Babcock didn’t want the donation — which came from the foundation named for Rock and his wife, Toni — to be a one-and-done gift.

“It’s important to endow it,” Babcock recalled telling Rock. “And the reason is that it’s perpetual — every single family moving into the future will be able to attend the academy and have great student programs.”

When she left that job, Babcock had to navigate the complexities of an organization in San Diego that had been created from the merger of two nonprofits, as well as work in partnership with the city department that oversees the park. That meant she would be thrust into the controversy over people experiencing homelessness who were living in the park.

She threw her organization’s support behind a ban on homeless encampments in parks, a ferociously debated measure that barely passed the city council on a 5-4 vote last June. She came to that decision, she said, because homeless services, such as mental health and medical assistance and food distribution, would be allowed in the park in designated areas.

“That was an intense set of city council meetings,” she said.

During her years in California, the state — like many other places around the country — began reckoning with past mistreatment of Indigenous people, which included the renaming of buildings and institutions named for Junipero Serra, the Catholic saint who launched the network of missions in the state.

In San Diego, Babcock — a cultural anthropologist by training — headed an organization dedicated to improving a park named for a Spanish explorer and conquistador, Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, who committed atrocities against Indigenous people. Unlike the clamor to erase Serra’s name, there’s been less of a focus on whether the park’s name should be reconsidered, Babcock said.

“I have not spent too much time thinking about that in particular,” said Babcock, who was born in Evanston, Ill., and grew up from the age of 9 in Dallas. “I’ve been super-focused on, what I can do to just make sure that this park is as amazing as the residents here deserve?”

Babcock, a 56-year-old divorced mother of two adult children, was once a music teacher. She said she spends her free time knitting and reading. Walking on the beach, too — “I’ll miss that,” she said.

Babcock has studied the migration of Central Americans to Chicago. Over the weekend before her Smithsonian appointment was announced, she did some reading about the impact of female migrants from Belize on the community of migrants from their country in Chicago.

“Those are important stories to be told,” she said. “And those haven’t been told.”

In this era of bitter partisan divides over immigration, Babcock noted in the interview that the women’s museum is a nonpartisan institution that was established by a bipartisan commission. As for the broader story of immigration roiling the current presidential election, she said, “I’d rather not get into that.”

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