Their ages span four generations, and their careers follow no linear path. They have enough letters behind their names to form a small university. They’ve worked in Switzerland, Qatar, and too many small towns to count, hailing from regions as diverse as the Southern Hemisphere and the segregated South.
The 13 women who direct some of the region’s prominent museums are as different as the institutions they lead. But nine of them have at least one similarity: They succeeded men. Of the remaining four, two are in charge of museums they founded, while two succeeded a woman, including Susan Fisher Sterling, head of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, who says, “We’ve always had a woman director.”
For decades, women have held many positions in the museum field, working as curators, development specialists and press secretaries. But in recent years, women have assumed the director title in droves. As of 2012, 57 percent of museum directors in the United States are women, according to the American Alliance of Museums. In Washington, about 50 percent of museums and historical sites are now led by women, with many helming active, popular museums with regional and national appeal, such as the National Portrait Gallery, the Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Phillips Collection. In the past six years, five of the region’s most prominent museums have gained a female director.
To have so many women directing major museums in Washington, the country’s museum hub, is surprising to many. In fact, many directors interviewed for this article were shocked that the number is in the double digits:
“Are there really that many now?” asked Elizabeth Broun, director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery.