The National Archives issued an apology this week after reports emerged that a photo used in one of its displays was altered to blur signs from the 2017 Women’s March that were critical of President Donald Trump, according to The New York Times.
The photo, not officially a part of the archives but one licensed by Getty for use in a display for the “Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote” exhibit, included marchers holding signs that read “God Hates Trump” and “Trump & GOP — Hands Off Women” — both of which had the name “Trump” blurred from view.
Other altered march signs included one that read, “If my vagina could shoot bullets, it’d be less REGULATED,” where the word “vagina” was blurred, and another that said, “This Pussy Grabs Back,” with the word “Pussy” obscured from view.
The altered image was first reported by The Washington Post, and Archives spokeswoman Miriam Kleiman initially told the newspaper that the changes were made “so as not to engage in current political controversy.”
“As a non-partisan, non-political federal agency, we blurred references to the President’s name on some posters, so as not to engage in current political controversy,” Kleiman wrote in a Saturday email to The Post. “Our mission is to safeguard and provide access to the nation’s most important federal records, and our exhibits are one way in which we connect the American people to those records. Modifying the image was an attempt on our part to keep the focus on the records.”
As for references to the female anatomy, the Archives said those words were obscured due to their perception as inappropriate for younger visitors.
However, by Saturday afternoon and following public uproar, the Archives had issued an apology, saying: “We made a mistake.”
The display — which features the Women’s March image when viewed from one perspective and a similar women’s demonstration from 1913 when viewed from another angle — was turned to show only a blank canvas, with a statement that read in part:
“In a promotional display in this spot, we obscured some words on protest signs in a photo of the 2017 Women’s March. This photo is not an archival record held by the National Archives but one we licensed to use as a promotional graphic. Nonetheless, we were wrong to alter the image.”
The statement also said the Archives would replace the offending photo “as soon as possible with one that uses the unaltered image.”
The Times noted that the “controversy unfolded as tens of thousands of women gathered in Washington and other cities on Saturday for the fourth Women’s March” — events largely inspired by Trump’s election to office.
Rinku Sen, a president of the board of directors for the Women’s March, said the Archives’ move to obscure the signs was a “symbol of the degradation of democracy.”
“The National Archives are our public historians and historians are not meant to change history but to report it,” she said. “To me, it says that censoring women is a thing that people think they can do.”
Historians and archivists also criticized the Archives, which is a tax-payer funded institution.
“Museums, archives, and stewards of our historic artifacts should absolutely never change or alter visual or written content in primary sources,” Rhae Lynn Barnes, a professor of American Cultural History at Princeton University, told The Times. “That is something totalitarian governments do.”
“American history is hopeful and uplifting and triumphant, but it’s also dark and disturbing,” she added. “Our job is to hold both of those truths and tensions together and properly contextualize the past so current and future generations can make up their own minds about the significance of what happened and empower themselves.”
Likewise, Kathleen Roe, who was an archivist for 40 years at the New York State Archives, told The Times the altered image was “really disappointing.”
“We are charged with providing access to the record as it exists not to the record as we wish it would exist or how it should be made to look for certain situations,” she said. “If there is any place that you should be able to go to for the record as it was recorded it is in government archives.”
"Doctoring a commemorative photograph buys right into the notion that it's okay to silence women's voice and actions," Wendy Kline, a history professor at Purdue University, told The Post in response to the controversy. "It is literally erasing something that was accurately captured on camera. That's an attempt to erase a powerful message."
The Post reported that “Archive officials did not respond to a request to provide examples of previous instances in which the Archives altered a document or photograph so as not to engage in political controversy.”