WASHINGTON – Officials at the National Archives on Saturday said they had removed from display an altered photo from the 2017 Women’s March in which signs held by marchers critical of President Donald Trump had been blurred.
In tweets on Saturday, the museum apologized and said: “We made a mistake.”
“As the National Archives of the United States, we are and have always been completely committed to preserving our archival holdings, without alteration,” one of the tweets said.
“This photo is not an archival record held by the @usnatarchives, but one we licensed to use as a promotional graphic,” it said in another tweet. “Nonetheless, we were wrong to alter the image.”
The altered 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 on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington. The display linked momentous demonstrations for women’s rights more than a century apart on the same stretch of pavement.
Marchers in the 2017 photograph by Mario Tama of Getty Images were shown carrying a variety of signs, at least four of which were altered by the museum. A placard that proclaimed “God Hates Trump” had Trump blotted out so that it read “God Hates.” A sign that read “Trump & GOP – Hands Off Women” had the word Trump blurred. Signs with messages that referenced women’s anatomy were also digitally altered.
The altered photograph greeted visitors to “Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote,” an exhibit that opened in May celebrating the centennial of women’s suffrage. The 19th Amendment, which was ratified in 1920, prohibits the federal government and states from denying the right to vote on the basis of sex.
The museum said in tweets Saturday that the display would be replaced “with one that uses the unaltered image” and that museum officials would “start a thorough review of our exhibit policies and procedures so that this does not happen again.”
Museum officials initially defended the alterations as an effort “not to engage in current political controversy” and because the museum hosts groups of students and young people, for whom some of the words could have been perceived as inappropriate.
But in a Washington Post article published Friday, prominent historians expressed dismay.
After the museum’s apology, Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley said he was pleased that the National Archives is “out of the Photoshop business.”
“It’s refreshing that the National Archives stepped up and fixed a grave wrong,” he said. “It’s more important than ever that U.S. government institutions keep their integrity intact with the American public.”
Louise Melling, deputy legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement that Archives officials need to explain who ordered “the Orwellian step of trying to rewrite history” and why.
“It is the job of the National Archives to document history, not alter it to serve the president’s ego,” she said.
Karin Wulf, a history professor at the College of William & Mary and executive director of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, said in an email Saturday that the museum’s admission of error and commitment to a review was important.
“I know scholars and the general public alike will be paying close attention, wanting to know the process and outcome of that review,” she said. “But it was a very significant thing, in my view, that they confirmed their commitment to core values. Democracy asks a lot of an organization like the Archives.”
The Archives said Friday that the decision to obscure the words was made by agency managers and museum staff members. It said David Ferriero, the archivist of the United States who was appointed by President Barack Obama, participated in talks regarding the exhibit and supported the decision to edit the photo.
On Saturday, when asked whether the apology came from Ferriero, the Archives’s communications office said via email that: “The apology was issued on behalf of the agency by the Public and Media Communications Office.”