In 2014, more than 18 million Americans traveled to Washington, D.C. Many of them walked the stairs of the Capitol building, posed for a picture outside the White House, and joined the ranks of locals, schoolchildren, and tourists exploring the long hallways of the roughly 200 museums in the nation’s capital.
But how do institutions like the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, the Holocaust museum, or the Newseum come to be? In January, Denison gained an insider to this process when former vice chair of Nielsen and Denison Trustee Susan Whiting ’78 was named chair of the board for the National Women’s History Museum (NWHM). One of Whiting’s main responsibilities is to lead the board, whose role includes developing space to house the D.C. museum.
“Altogether it just seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” says Whiting, who lives in Chicago with her twins. “First, I love the idea of prominently representing the history of American women’s contributions. Second, I’m excited to shape the next stage of an organization using the business experience from my career. I’m also a direct descendant of Susan B. Anthony, so I grew up hearing her story. I feel an obligation to ensure other stories are told as well.”
The NWHM was founded in 1996 to celebrate the diverse historic contributions of women and to integrate this heritage into America’s history. In 1999, the President’s Commission on the Celebration of Women in American History specifically cited the NWHM in its call for a women’s history museum in the D.C. area. Since then, the museum has worked through the Internet and through other institutions to further develop its educational resources, research, and exhibits that explore immigrant women and their roles in shaping society, women’s rights, and women in wartime. But the museum is still missing one thing: a permanent home.
In order to secure a space on or near the National Mall, NWHM requires congressional approval. In addition to shepherding museum leaders, doing fundraising, and promoting NWHM, Whiting and other board members will work with a congressional commission that contains eight elected officials, appointed by congressional leaders in December 2014, to produce a report on the future development of the museum. The completion of this report will put them one step closer to breaking ground.
Whiting, who has experience working with elected officials and serving on multiple nonprofit museum and cultural boards, is up for the task.
“I think education, nature, and conservation have always been my personal and family interests, both growing up in Wisconsin and in my volunteer work. If you add in the global business experience from Nielsen, it seemed like a good fit,” says Whiting, who also chairs the board of the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Chicago.
“It’s going to be a long process working with the commission to put things together, but I’m really excited to make this a truly national museum, so that we do have women’s stories from all 50 states. And we know that there are role models that are unknown. We want to teach and inspire. To me, that’s really what this is about.”