National Archives Doctors Women’s March Photo, Apologizes

In response to a January 17 Washington Post article by reporter Joe Heim, the Washington, DC–based National Archives and Record Administration (NARA) has restored an altered promotional photograph in its lobby to its original state and published an apology on its website .

screen shot of tweet from NARA apologizingIn response to a January 17 Washington Post article by reporter Joe Heim, the Washington, DC–based National Archives and Record Administration (NARA) has restored an altered promotional photograph in its lobby to its original state and published an apology on its website.

The 49" x 69" photograph, originally taken by Getty Images photographer Mario Tama, depicts the Women’s March on January 21, 2017, the day after President Trump’s inauguration. The image was reprinted to promote “Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote,” an exhibit highlighting the centennial of the 19th Amendment, at the National Archives in Washington, DC. Tama’s photograph was combined with a second picture—a black-and-white white photograph of a women’s suffrage march taken on Pennsylvania Avenue as well, in 1913—to greet visitors in the building’s elevator lobby.

In the 2017 photo, elements of protest signs criticizing Trump were intentionally blurred, leaving them unreadable. A sign reading “God Hates Trump,” and another that states “Trump & GOP—Hands off Women” both had the word “Trump” obscured. A sign that says “If my vagina could shoot bullets, it’d be less REGULATED” and another reading “This Pussy Grabs Back” had the words referencing anatomy blurred or erased.

According to Heim’s article, NARA spokesperson Miriam Kleiman acknowledged that the agency had made alterations to the 2017 photo for its promotional use. It is not an archival record held by the agency. The item in the exhibition was displayed in its intact form, but the image was changed for publicity use “so as not to engage in current political controversy,” in the case of the president’s name, and in the case of the genital references, because “the museum hosts many groups of students and young people and the words could be perceived as inappropriate.” NARA “only alters images in exhibits when they are used as graphic design components,” said Kleiman.

NARA spokesperson John Valceanu noted that the proposed alterations to the photograph had been approved by Getty, which then licensed the Archives’ use of the image. Anne Flanagan, a Getty spokesperson, confirmed that the image was licensed to the National Archives Foundation, but said Getty was still determining whether it had approved the changes.

According to the Washington Post, the decision to edit the photograph was made by NARA managers and museum staff members. Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero participated in talks about the exhibit, and supported the choice.



An editorial on the subject appeared in the Washington Post on January 18, noting that, although NARA did not change version of the image in the exhibition itself, “Photo alteration long has been the preserve of authoritarian governments.”

NARA responded with a statement and via social media on the same day, beginning with an apology: “We made a mistake.” Its statement went on to say, ““As the National Archives of the United States, we are and have always been completely committed to preserving our archival holdings, without alteration”—noting that the photograph in question was not an archival record held by the Archives. “Nonetheless,” NARA continued, “we were wrong to alter the image.”

NARA stated that it would remove the display and replace it with one using an unaltered image, adding, “We apologize, and will immediately start a thorough review of our exhibit policies and procedures so that this does not happen again.”

In an updated version of the editorial, the Washington Post commended the agency for its response and apology. However, a number of national organizations have addressed the decision that prompted the need for the NARA’s apology, noting that doctoring photographs—or any item that is part of the historical record—has implications that go beyond simply changing a display image.

The Society of American Archivists (SAA) issued a statement on January 19, noting that the issue “raises serious concerns for [SAA] about falsification of the historical record, politicization of the National Archives and its public exhibitions, and professional obligations for objectivity and honesty.”

The statement referenced the SAA Code of Ethics, which reads, in part, “Archivists ensure the authenticity and continuing usability of records in their care. They document and protect the unique archival characteristics of records and strive to protect the records’ intellectual and physical integrity from tampering or corruption. Archivists may not willfully alter, manipulate, or destroy data or records to conceal facts or distort evidence. They thoroughly document any actions that may cause changes to the records in their care or raise questions about the records’ authenticity.”

The American Library Association (ALA) responded on January 21. ALA’s statement read, in part, “Such an act is a violation of the Library Bill of Rights which states any deletion, excision, alteration, editing, or obliteration of any part of a library resource by administrators, employees, governing authorities, parent institutions, or third party vendors when done for the purposes of censorship.”

“We've never heard of an organization or institution like the National Archives doctoring photos. There's no precedent that we're aware of,” said National Coalition Against Censorship director of communications Nora Pelizzari. “That raises the question of whether it has happened before and we're unaware of it. How would we know? That's a real problem.”

Bergis Jules, project director and co–principal investigator at Documenting the Now, a platform for chronicling historically significant events by collecting and preserving digital content, expressed similar concerns. "This incident is troubling for several reasons," he told LJ, "but mostly because in their attempt to practice neutrality—which is impossible in archival work—the National Archives did serious damage to the integrity of the profession and to archivists everywhere who pride themselves on preserving the authenticity of the historical records we care for while presenting that history, as it exists, unvarnished, to the public. The actions of the National Archives were a betrayal of everything the archives profession holds dear. It is important that they took down the doctored image, promised to display the original, and issued apologies, but in order to gain the trust of the public and the profession, they should clarify whether they have done this in the past, and share with us the actions they will take, beyond exhibition policy changes, to address the culture at the National Archives that allowed this to happen in the first place."

Not every instance of an organization grappling with sensitive material involves outright alteration, either. “In art institutions, in public libraries, in government buildings, we've seen photographs removed from exhibitions because they are considered too political, or angles shown that are misleading—like the number of people at the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue, or the number of people at the Trump inauguration,” Pelizzari noted. She suggests that curation can help address issues with content.

“One path that institutions often take is simply to adjust the placement of images that might be particularly controversial so that it's more of a choice to view them, as opposed to people having to walk past them without making a choice to view the image,” Pelizzari told LJ. NARA “could have chosen a different image, or they could have placed the image in a different location if they were concerned that it would cause disruption.”

The main concern, she added, is the responsibility imbued in the agency’s name. “We're talking about an archive,” Pelizzari said. “We're talking about the keepers of primary sources. And primary sources are how individuals, researchers and otherwise, make their own critical analyses.”

The Concerned Archivists’ Alliance (CAA) expressed similar misgivings, stating that “We still feel there is value in articulating why, as colleagues in the field, we believe the original decision was unethical.” CAA’s open letter to Ferriero , posted at the time of the original Washington Post article, remains active and accepting signatures. At press time, 180 archives professionals had signed.

On January 22, Ferriero addressed these widespread concerns on NARA’s AOTUS Blog. He referenced the public apology, adding, “Yesterday, I sent an apology to NARA staff members as well. Their commitment to integrity, transparency, our mission, and the public good is well established. I am very sorry that these attributes have been called into question in any way.”

The decision was made without any external direction, Ferriero said, noting that NARA chose the image with the aim of connecting the suffrage exhibit with contemporary issues. “However, we wrongly missed the overall implications of the alteration,” he wrote. “Our action made it appear as if we did not understand the importance of our unique charge: as an archives, we must present materials—whether they are ours or not—without alteration; as a museum proudly celebrating the accomplishments of women, we should accurately present not silence the voices of women; and as a Federal agency serving the American public, we must incorporate non-partisanship into everything we do.”

Ferriero added, “Our credibility, so important to our mission, understandably has been questioned. We have begun to examine internal exhibit policies and processes and we will incorporate external best practices to ensure something like this never happens again. In addition to our public apology and my letter to staff yesterday, we will be apologizing to our colleagues in the archives, museum, library, education, and other fields, as well.”

Author Image
Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is News Editor for Library Journal.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing