The National Archives and Records Administration has publicly apologised for its controversial decision to doctor a photograph it had been using as an exhibit since spring last year. The National Archives is an independent government institution which is charged with the preservation of a range of different political, governmental and historical records in the United States. It occasionally produces public exhibits of important documents in its keeping. In 2019, the administration decided to make an exhibit of a photograph taken at the 2017 Women’s March on the National Mall in Washington DC.
As reported by MuseumNext, the decision to display an altered version of the original image received widespread criticism from commentators and historians across the US. Essentially, the administration took the view that it needed to blur out certain parts of the placards that were on show in the photo. Some of the signs held by protestors at the rally mentioned female genitalia and any words that made direct reference to them were struck out. Equally, any mention of the president by name in the photo was also removed. President Trump had been inaugurated the day before the famous Women’s March took place and a number of protestors were holding placards that were critical of him.
Although the censored photograph had been on show since last May and had attracted some criticism, it was not until recent weeks that the situation worsened for the administration. The Washington Post led much of the debate over the issue when it published a story about the doctored image in the exhibition, known as Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote” At the time, a spokesperson for the National Archives had initially defended the decision to blur out some of the placards in the photograph. The administration had said that it was a deliberate attempt to be non-partisan on the issue of presidential criticism. In addition, the decision to remove references to female body parts was defended as one that would help to prevent distress to children who might be exposed to the exhibit.
However, with so much disapproval building up for the government agency, the National Archives decided to change its mind and accept that its decision had, in fact, been wrong. “We made a mistake,” the agency’s spokesperson said. Admitting it had been at fault, the National Archives said that it had always been committed to preserving the country’s archives without altering them. “We apologise [for the error]… and we will, therefore, commence a thorough review of our exhibit policies and procedures with immediate effect so that this does not happen again,” a written statement from the administration said.
The critique of the National Archives’ decision appears to have come in three strands, forcing the administration to alter its previously stated position. Firstly, where the word “Trump” had been digitally removed from a placard that read “God Hates Trump”, some American commentators complained that the administration was not being above politics but being directly partisan. Where words like “vagina” were blurred from other protestor placards, women’s groups were offended and complained that they were being airbrushed out of an image directly related to women’s issues in politics. In addition, free speech advocates in the US were critical of the decision to censor the image in a way that tried to reshape history.
Louise Melling, the deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that she thought the decision to alter the photograph with digital blurring was wrong. “The government cannot airbrush history or delete women’s bodies from it,” she said. Melling went on to add that she thought most Americans would agree that it is the primary function of the National Archives to document history and not to change it, “to serve the President’s ego.”
However, in a twist to the controversy, the National Archives, claimed that the image in question was one that it had licensed to use as a promotional graphic and was not part of its own collection. “Nonetheless, we were wrong to change it,” the administration confirmed.
About the author – Manuel Charr
Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.