Four days after apologizing for altering a photo of the 2017 Women’s March, the National Archives replaced it with an unaltered copy of the original, according to an announcement on the agency’s website Wednesday.
The photograph, which had been on display since May, showed protesters in Washington on Jan. 21, 2017, the day after President Donald Trump’s inauguration. Many carried signs, but messages on some of the placards had been blurred out archive managers and staffers, including messages critical of Trump and others that mentioned female anatomy.
The archives told The Washington Post on Friday, Jan. 17 that it had blurred out Trump’s name “so as not to engage in current political controversy” and that it redacted references to women’s anatomy because the museum hosts students and young people and the words could be perceived as inappropriate.
Historians roundly criticized the decision, arguing that documents and photos should never be altered, particularly by the government agency in charge of keeping and curating them. A public outcry followed news reports that noted the alteration of the photo.
On Saturday, Jan. 18, less than 24 hours after The Post’s story was published, the archives released a statement that began with “We made a mistake.” It said it would launch a “thorough review of our exhibit policies and procedures so that this does not happen again.” The altered photo was removed.
That 49-by-69-inch photograph was part of a display that showed the 2017 march from one perspective and, viewed from another angle, shifted to show a 1913 black-and-white image of a women’s suffrage march, also in Washington. The large photograph, known as a lenticular image, has been replaced by two smaller photographs: one of the 1913 march and the original, unedited photograph of the 2017 march. The agency’s printed apology is posted on a sign between the two images.
Archivist David Ferriero said in a statement Wednesday that the agency is having the lenticular image of the 1913 and 2017 marches refabricated without alterations and will install it in its original location as soon as it is available.
Ferriero, who has led the agency since being appointed by President Barack Obama in 2009, said in the statement that he took full responsibility for the decision and the broader concerns it has raised. The decision to blur the photograph, he said, “was made without any external direction whatsoever.”
In the lengthy statement, titled “Accepting Responsibility, Working to Rebuild Your Trust,” and published on the agency’s website, Ferriero said officials thought at the time that their decision had been “an acceptable and prudent choice.”
However, he added, “we wrongly missed the overall implications of the alteration. 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 sent a separate email Tuesday apologizing to the agency’s employees.
“Your commitment to integrity, transparency, and the public good is well-established and I am sorry that this decision created a situation that called these attributes into question in any way,” he wrote.
Critics of the agency’s original action praised Ferriero for addressing it quickly.
The archives “made an ill-advised decision that violated the ethical standards of the archives profession,” James Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association, said in an email. “They have acknowledged that error, and its gravity. They apparently are mounting the image as it should have appeared in the first place, and are reviewing procedures to make sure this doesn’t happen again. The AHA compliments the Archivist and his staff in these steps to restore confidence in the integrity of the agency.”