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Posted by on Jan 19, 2020 in History, Photography, Politics | 0 comments

Oopsie? National Archives apologizes and removes altered photo of 2017 Women’s March (UPDATED)

Embed from Getty Images


Or wegotcaughtsie?

After unleashing a bees-nest of controversy and denunciations about its decision to blur messages critical of Donald Trump in a photo of the 2017 Women’s March, the National Archives Archives has apologized and removed the censored sign from its exhibition. (The uncensored image is seen above.)

The National Archives on Saturday apologized and said it removed from display a 2017 photograph of the Women’s March it had altered to censor signs referencing women’s anatomy and President Donald Trump’s name.

“We made a mistake,” the National Archives said on Twitter, acknowledging that it had obscured some words from protest signs seen in the image. The Archives said it will replace it with an unaltered image “as soon as possible.”

The original photograph, taken by Getty Images’ Mario Tama, shows a sea of people marching down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC, on January 21, 2017 — a day after Trump’s inauguration. In changes to the original photo, Trump’s name was blurred from signs that read “God Hates Trump” and “Trump & GOP — Hands Off Women,” according to The Washington Post, which first reported the altered photo Friday.

The National Archives said the photo was not an archival record, but one that they licensed to use as a “promotional graphic” for the National Archives Museum’s exhibit marking the centennial of the 19th Amendment’s ratification. “Nonetheless,” it said, “we were wrong to alter the image.”

The National Archives vowed to undergo “a thorough review” of its policies and procedures for exhibits.
“We apologize, and will immediately start a thorough review of our exhibit policies and procedures so that this does not happen again,” it said.

The big question is why and how this occurred. Just saying it was a mistake doesn’t quite cut it. Hopefully some reporter in coming months, or some future historian, will detail what happened. It raised the specter of Orwell’s 1984 where history was sanitized for The Leader. In normal times, this thought wouldn’t pop into anyone’s head that this was the sanitizing of history for political purpose or due to a fear of the person in the White House. Certainly not by a venerable institution. But we have seen this isn’t normal times. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Washington Post has some kind of story on it in the future, even if it’s just a story about how the Archives messed up.

Journalist David M. Perry via CNN:

While the National Archives issued an apology and vowed to undergo “a thorough review” of its policies after the Washington Post first reported on the alteration, having discovered it by chance, as a historian I worry about how many other altered documents the Trump administration has buried in our records. Will we ever know?
Censoring photographs to avoid angering a political leader is not a new phenomenon: Stalin’s regime famously manipulated photographs to shape public perception. It’s all part of what Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a history professor at New York University, calls “memory politics,” and the American right has played an ongoing role in shaping our memory in ways that support their goals.

Conservatives, for example, have asserted control over history textbooks to play down the horrors of slavery and diminish the degree to which teaching focuses on slavery as the cause of the Civil War. Just last week, Vice President Mike Pence authored a mendacious op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, which touted one senator’s vote against the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson as a profile in courage, despite historians’ agreement that the senator was, in fact, likely bribed.

It’s likely no one from the White House gave the National Archives orders to alter the image. Instead, it seems the museum — an independent organization that seeks to “cultivate public participation, and strengthen our nation’s democracy through public access to high-value government records,” voluntarily corrupted themselves and diluted our memory of the past to avoid controversy. But editing a photo and glossing over the fact that many demonstrators turned out to protest Trump is, itself, a political act.


This kind of corruption is, perhaps, even more dangerous than intentional conspiracies. The historian Ian Kershaw coined the phrase “working toward the Führer” as a way to explain how fascist regimes work. Hitler was not a bureaucrat, but a skilled rhetorician able to articulate his values to his administration and countless other Germans, who then on their own worked to figure out how put his ideals into action.
We end up with conscientious librarians choosing to alter a photo that might show opposition to the President. What else has been altered? Who else goes out of their way to treat someone cruelly, change a document, shift a contract to a Trump property, all out of the assumption that they are working towards the President’s goals.


Political regimes manipulate historical memory to craft usable pasts. We won’t always catch them. Instead, we’re going to have to rebuild governing norms so that thousands of officials make decisions based on law and in pursuit of truth, or those historians in the future may have to spend all their time reading between the lines, wondering how so many people chose to act so badly. In the end, the folks at the National Archives are going to have to choose whether to work for the President, or work towards preserving the past.

Some reaction from Philip Kennicott, the Washington Post’s Art and Architecture critic:

… When planning the Archives, he [architect John Russell Pope] succeeded in persuading the government to situate it where it now stands, on Pennsylvania Avenue halfway between the U.S. Capitol and the White House, suggesting its neutrality within the checks-and-balances system of the government.

Now the Archives has foolishly compromised the public’s sense of its independence, so artfully embedded in its landmark building. By blurring out details from protest signs in an image of the 2017 Women’s March, including the name of President Trump and references to the female anatomy — a decision the Archives publicly apologized for on Saturday — it has damaged the faith many Americans, particularly women, may have had in its role as an impartial conservator of the nation’s records. It has unnecessarily squandered something that cannot easily be regained.

There must be consequences.

An Archives spokeswoman told The Washington Post the changes to a large-format image included in an exhibition about women’s suffrage were made “so as not to engage in current political controversy.” If that was the intent, they obviously failed, embroiling the institution in exactly the controversy they say they wanted to avoid. But no matter the proferred explanation or statement of apology, the decision indicates a lack of leadership and distinct confusion about the mission at the Archives. If the Archives wants to teach Americans about history, then it must be scrupulously honest in its presentation of all documentary evidence.


…(S}crubbing out references to women’s anatomy in the image was not a benign or neutral act of family-friendly censorship. It was censorship of the fundamental message of the Women’s March.

Scrubbing out negative comments about Trump is at least as disturbing, given the ballooning crisis of confidence in democratic institutions. America teeters on the precipice of authoritarianism, and that jeopardy affects every institution, no matter how seemingly detached from partisan politics its mission…Every institution will be tested [by Trump], and the Archives has failed…

Given the severity of this recent blunder, it is not clear the Archives can be trusted to finesse our most complicated cultural and archival challenge, a reassessment of history that is rigorous, honest and inclusive. If the institution’s leadership wants to make amends, however, there are two places to start. Replace the image with the original, uncensored one. And seek out the women whose signs were airbrushed out of history and give each of them a genuine apology.