Accepting Responsibility, Working to Rebuild Your Trust

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.

80 thoughts on “Accepting Responsibility, Working to Rebuild Your Trust

  1. Hi Himanshu Sharma. Thanks for…what exactly?

    It’s not over until he’s out, until he no longer has access to nuclear weapon codes. Who? The man who was censored out of this exhibit because he might bother some people (definitely the families of 250k). The infamous consent-ignoring “grab em by the pussy” guy.

    He’s salting the earth on his way out: leaving Open Skies, Paris Agreement, WHO; liquidating surveillance planes; undermining the election process; you name it & he’s done it.

    https://apnews.com/article/election-2020-joe-biden-donald-trump-coronavirus-pandemic-elections-e9f1167a204dbfa51fb38608677fac70

  2. Not dangerous at all. Brought to you by the man-child who was edited out of this exhibit. The one desperately trying to squirm out of a rape trial. The one who obviously cares nothing about consent with his “grab em by the pussy” comment. The one who abandons his own supporters post-rally in freezing temperatures. The one who grifts millions of dollars from his own followers to support his corrupt lifestyle. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/12/02/most-petulant-46-minutes-american-history/

  3. Seems like you finally got the hint that I won’t shut up until you stop trying to bury my comments. Problem is, your attempts made me very angry.

    Remember this, everyone. The poor, women, and BIPOC are the canaries in the coal mine. However we’re treated indicates the general health of society as a whole.

    You tried to silence us and pretend that your censored “grab em by the pussy” guy was a smart, upstanding leader (or at least adequate and acceptable). We knew differently, and now everyone except the rich are feeling it. He’s scorching the land on his way out, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he tries to nuke another country just because. That might put a wrinkle in the financial plans of the rich.

    https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/trump-wanted-bomb-iran-still-could-leaving-biden-pick-pieces-ncna1248186

  4. Hello, Tarane. I’m glad you think his apology for his unethical behavior was amazing. It warms my cockles. That was sarcasm, for those not deciphering it.

    Welcome to 2021 for everyone who survived. Unfortunately, 355k didn’t. Why? The man whose name was censored out of this exhibit, the “grab em by the pussy” guy, didn’t want the responsibility with the enormous power and so did nothing. Absolutely nothing. Actually, that’s not true. He actively stole PPP away from states, on route, that paid out of their own coffers (still OUR taxpayer money) because he refused. And the list goes on and on.

    NYT: Trump’s Focus as the Pandemic Raged: What Would It Mean for Him?
    https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/31/us/politics/trump-coronavirus.html

    I’ve included this NYT article even though they frequently fail at framing news and reality properly. They still seem to be a respected source of news. MSM needs to be better at calling things what they are. Instead of “the man who set off Nashville explosion,” the title should read “white suicide bomber destroys Nashville neighborhood.” So, in this article, “rise to the moment” is a silly comment since Dear Leader has never risen to any moment or any responsibility. Ever. After four years, we (anyone acknowledging reality) know exactly what he will do (anything that benefits him) and not do (actual hard, ethical work). One would hope the idiotic “will he behave presidentially” concept would be long dead. The “grab em by the pussy” comment told everyone everything they needed to know. Figure it out.

    How we frame history matters. If vital facts are left out (like names and swear words), if crazy white suicide bombers are framed as sympathetic, if there is the suggestion that a failed brat who managed to ascend to the highest office could still do something right when it’s clear that’s not going to happen, then history is remembered incorrectly, and we’re all doomed to do it all over again later. Truth Matters. An archivist altered history because “he thought” some people would be upset (or for some other reason). That is the greatest sin an archivist can commit. It is antithetical to his duty.

    History will remember traitors. Doing the right thing is never easy. This last year especially has shown us the character, or lack thereof, of everyone in this nation. Actions are the proof behind words. Either we walk the talk or we don’t. How will you be remembered by others? What will you think of yourself on your deathbed? I can sleep at night. I will die knowing I fought the good fight, doing whatever was in my power to make things right. Can you honestly say the same?

  5. “Appears the Trump campaign’s digital director tried to give Trump his account. Twitter promptly suspended him” -Jeremy Diamond/CNN

    https://twitter.com/JDiamond1/status/1347741119434649603

    Totes normal. Just like the attempted coup that happened Wed. The “grab em by the pussy” guy, the one who still has access to the nuclear codes, is a malignant narcissist whose outlet for attention has been shut off. Like a junkie, he jumped from his personal to presidential to campaign staffer’s acct. The longer it takes to kick him out, the angrier he will get…WITH POWER.

    *NOW* do you understand why this march was so important? Those who have had boots on our necks saw this a mile away BEFORE he was elected. And here we are, suffering under the same crap as those who incited it. As those who enabled him. This is why remembering history CORRECTLY, UNCENSORED is critical.

    The next two weeks are going to be very interesting.

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