On Saturday, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) issued a public apology for having displayed an altered photograph at the National Archives Museum in Washington, DC. The public apology reads in full:
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.
In an elevator lobby promotional display for our current exhibit on the 19th Amendment, 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.
We have removed the current display and will replace it as soon as possible with one that uses the unaltered image.
We apologize, and will immediately start a thorough review of our exhibit policies and procedures so that this does not happen again.
Yesterday, I sent an apology to NARA staff members as well. Their commitment to integrity, transparency, our mission, and the public good is well established. I am very sorry that these attributes have been called into question in any way.
To be clear, this decision was made without any external direction whatsoever.
In the elevator lobby outside our Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote exhibit, we had mounted a lenticular display using an archival photograph of the 1913 suffrage march on Washington with a commercially-licensed photograph of the 2017 Women’s March. Both photographs had been taken from the same location and angle, so as the viewer moved from one position to another the images blended and changed. NARA had blurred words in four of the protest signs in the 2017 march photograph, including President Trump’s name and female anatomical references.
We wanted to use the 2017 Women’s March image to connect the suffrage exhibit with relevant issues today. We also wanted to avoid accusations of partisanship or complaints that we displayed inappropriate language in a family-friendly Federal museum.
With those concerns in mind, and because the image was not our archival record, but was commercially-licensed and used as a graphic component outside of the gallery space, we felt this was an acceptable and prudent choice.
However, 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.
We are now working to correct our actions as quickly and visibly as possible.
On Saturday afternoon, we removed the lenticular display and replaced it with our apology letter. On Sunday, we placed a photograph of the 1913 rally where the lenticular display had hung and placed the apology letter prominently next to the photo. Today we added the unaltered image of the 2017 march, placing it side-by-side with one from the 1913 rally. We are having the original lenticular display re-fabricated without the alterations, and we will install it in its original location as soon as it is available. I remain proud of the Rightfully Hers exhibit and the work of the National Archives staff to address issues related to the ongoing struggles of women’s rights in this centennial year of the 19th Amendment.
Photograph installation in the elevator lobby outside the Rightfully Hers exhibit in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery. Photo by Susana Raab, January 22, 2020.
Our credibility, so important to our mission, understandably has been questioned. We have begun to examine internal exhibit policies and processes and we will incorporate external best practices to ensure something like this never happens again. In addition to our public apology and my letter to staff yesterday, we will be apologizing to our colleagues in the archives, museum, library, education, and other fields, as well.
As the National Archives and Records Administration, we are first and foremost a government archives. Our mission is to preserve and provide public access to Federal Government records in our custody and control. Our records allow Americans to claim their rights of citizenship, to hold their government accountable, and to understand their history so they can participate more effectively in their government. We serve millions of researchers a year at public research rooms located across the country, online, and in response to written correspondence, email, and telephone requests. Access to these records – and faith in the institution that provides them – is essential to our American democracy.
I take full responsibility for this decision and the broader concerns it has raised. Together with NARA’s employees, I am committed to working to rebuild your trust in the National Archives and Records Administration. By continuing to serve our mission and customers with pride, integrity, and a commitment to impartiality, I pledge to restore public confidence in this great institution.