The National Archives is facing criticism for editing an image of the 2017 Women’s March in order to make it less “political” — and for making the photo less critical of President Donald Trump to do so.
The image — a 49-by-69-inch photograph depicting a sea of women flooding Pennsylvania Avenue on January 21, 2017 to protest Trump’s inauguration — leads the National Archives’ exhibit “Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote.” The show opened in May to celebrate the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage; the image of the Women’s March is juxtaposed with a 1913 black-and-white photo of a woman’s suffrage march in the exact same location.
The 2017 photo, however, has been altered, as The Washington Post’s Joe Heim reported Friday.
The Archives also blurred out words related to women’s anatomy such as vagina and pussy. For instance, “vagina” was blotted out of a sign comparing laws around reproductive health and those governing firearms that read: “If my vagina could shoot bullets, it’d be less REGULATED.”
Archives spokeswoman Miriam Kleiman told The Washington Post that the organization decided to alter the images to avoid controversy, considering the current political climate.
“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 said. “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.”
Of course, as observers like historian Marama Whyte have pointed out, by censoring the image, the Archives have created a political controversy over the accurate preservation of historical records and the appropriateness of a federal agency erasing criticism of a leader.
The Archives has claimed such controversies were not intentional, and that it censored words related to women’s anatomy due to concerns of being perceived as having created an exhibit inappropriate for a younger audience.
Kleiman told Post the Archives only alters images if they are used as “graphic design components” (like in promotional materials) and emphasized that artifacts are never changed. In this case, the Women’s March image was deemed a promotional display because it is used as the opening image that greets visitors at the beginning of the exhibit.
The decision to censor the photo was made by a group of people, including agency managers and staff members. Heim reported that an archivist appointed by President Barack Obama in 2009, David S. Ferriero, supported the decision to edit the photo after participating in decision-making talks.
These statements have done little to satisfy the Archives’ critics, however. On Twitter, Yale historian Joanne Freeman called the decision “dangerous” given the Trump administration has worked hard to undermine the public’s trust in institutions — the president has called the press the “enemy of the people” and described the FBI as “badly broken,” for example — and wrote, “don’t get me started on the irony of women’s voices being erased…from the Women’s March.”
Doctoring an image from the Women’s March silences women’s voices
Freeman’s tweet speaks to two major problems with the National Archives’ decision. It is an institution that is supposed to document history, and in altering a historic artifact without notifying its audience, the Archives undermines the trust it asks the public to have in its collection of primary sources.
“Information integrity as we learn time & again is the coin of the realm for democracy’s minimal function,” Karin Wulf, a historian and professor at William and Marry, wrote on Twitter. “If the [National Archives] was going to present an altered image they should have indicated what they did & why. That would have preserved our mutual need for info. integrity.”
The choice also had the effect of silencing women’s voices in an exhibit that was meant to honor and celebrate them, as Purdue University history professor Wendy Kline told The Washington Post.
”Doctoring a commemorative photograph buys right into the notion that it’s okay to silence women’s voice and actions,” Kline said. “It is literally erasing something that was accurately captured on camera. That’s an attempt to erase a powerful message.”
The irony of the entire situation, as historian and Muhlenberg College professor Jacqueline Antonovich points out, shows “how easily we can sanitize the suffrage movement itself, blurring out all of the inconvenient parts we don’t want to grapple with.”
And although the decision does not appear to have been motivated by any requests by the president — who has been openly critical of federal agencies he sees as questioning his behavior in any way, such as the FBI — there is also the issue that censoring criticism of a chief executive is something more commonly done in an authoritarian state than in a healthy democracy.
None of this is a good look for the National Archives, and all of it could have been easily avoided. As Eileen Clancy, a media archivist and student at the City University of New York, points out, the curators could have picked a different image rather than misleading the public.
In response to its critics, the National Archives tweeted Saturday, “We made a mistake.”
It has pledged to remove the altered photo, and said it “will replace it as soon as possible with one that uses the unaltered image.” And it said its staff had learned a valuable lesson from the furor, writing, “We apologize, and will immediately start a thorough review of our exhibit policies and procedures so that this does not happen again.”