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.

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

  1. Our nation and its collective memory is well served by having an Archivist who demonstrates the leadership and integrity to openly address and accept responsibility for this matter.

  2. Having toiled in your vineyard for 35 years and as an admirer of your innovative leadership, I was taken back by the Washington Post story as were many of my former colleagues. Your willingness to immediately admit error and the clear sincerity of your statements set you apart from the leaders of most public institutions. The ridiculous instinct to invoke papal infallibility is the downfall of many. The Republic that you serve has survived and grown because we are the most self correcting government in history. Congratulations on your courage, integrity, and leadership. John Constance

  3. Appreciate it. I was concerned and upset by this situation and hope that you can achieve a diversity of viewpoints from within your organization so that someone, somewhere, can maybe raise alarm bells about something like this before is becomes such a mess.

  4. I appreciate your forthright recognition of the seriousness of your error and your commitment both to repairing the damage and to learning from this episode.

    Along those lines, I feel strongly that the archives should retain (rather than destroy) the altered display along with whatever other documentation (for example, letters of protest) that can help provide context for its removal. This is now (regretably) a part of the history of the institution. To learn from that history, we need to retain a record of it, embarrassing though it may be.

    1. Eric Johnson-DeBaufre, thanks for the comment. FYI the records of the National Archives are administered under the Federal Records Act and the permanently valuable ones go into Record Group 64 in NARA’s holdings.You are right in saying the handling of the photograph in the promotional display is a part of NARA’s history, something Ii am confident its officials understand and accept.

  5. Thank you for the explanation. What I still don’t quite understand: Why did you not make a footnote or something similar saying: “We changed 4 protest signs because …” That would have been the usual way.

  6. “To be clear, this decision was made without any external direction whatsoever.”
    sounds like some folks had accused NARA of bending to pressure from the current White House.

  7. I appreciate the Archivist’s words–we all know words matter. However, words also have to be supported with actions–and actions over a long period of time. NARA in the records preservation and access arena is an extremely challenging organization with which to deal. I know–I had first-hand experience with the building of the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System in the 1990s and now with the Preserve the Pensions–War of 1812 pension record scanning project. If there is any possible roadblock that can be found and thrown up, NARA will find it and throw it squarely in the path of progress. I hear it from NARA’s primary constituent group (genealogists) and from NARA insiders. So, I can’t help but wonder about the veracity of the apology and whether this is actually a sign/symptom of a larger challenge–providing the citizens with *accurate*, *timely* access to *their* records.

    1. Your comments are very well presented. I believe David Ferriero is a good man who wants to make the Archives work to serve the public. However I’ve seen examples of where the exhibit component seems to do whatever it wants and is lacking a desire to promote the records function. There was a recent civil war exhibit that was very good. The records staff created a brochure that told the visitor how to now research their ancestors in the records at the Archives. The problem is the exhibit staff kept finding reasons not to display the brochure with the exhibit. When Mr. Ferriero was told about the problem, he just shook his head and took no action to correct the problem. Simply put the exhibit leadership doesn’t have the same concern about records as does the staff that maintains the records. The purpose of the exhibit staff is to bring in the public to view displays. The exhibit staff is quick to point out that they bring in more visitors than the number of individuals seeking to view records. The problem demonstrated by this event is that the Archivist doesn’t have control of the exhibit function.

  8. The archivist has forthrightly and quickly accepted the blame for an error, a human error which apparently was made in good faith if erroneously. For that and for the clear explanation and apology and undertaking to avoid future mistakes, our thanks and our support and our trust. It should be recalled always that people make mistakes and for that reason erasers are put on pencils.

  9. My parents and I proudly served the Archives for 61 years, and for seven of those years I led the Education Division and the exhibits program. I was shocked by the alterations to that photograph but am delighted that you removed the offending text inaccurate version, replaced it with the original, and made a fulsome apology for what happened. That was the right thing to do, and I commend you all for it. Well done, sir, and I send my compliments to you and the entire staff. — Philip C. Brooks, Jr.

  10. Admitting to the error and restoring the original photo was the bare minimum accountability. This altered photo had been on display since May 2019, for EIGHT MONTHS. It was only because a reporter just happened to notice the alterations that you were CAUGHT. I’ve had enough of injustice. This wasn’t a minor mistake. The ultimate duty of an archivist is to preserve. Not alter. Not erase. If you don’t understand the core value of your job, you shouldn’t be there.

    Your choice was irony twofold…the National Archives CENSORED an image in the name of celebrating women’s voices. Do you have any idea how many brilliant women I don’t know about because men suppressed their stories? Groundbreaking scientists, philosophers, artists, and mathematicians? I don’t know either because their stories are lost due to misogyny. Any little girl who viewed that altered photo will have a different understanding of history because a MAN refused to allow her to see the truth. How dare you.

    If you truly believe you are solely responsible, then RESIGN. That is the only way I will trust you again. That would be true remorse and accountability.

    1. As usual, as a man, you seem to be getting a free pass for a heinous act. If a woman made this “mistake,” she would be tarred, feathered, and chased out of her job. If a woman had done this, she SHOULD resign, as should you. It betrayed the sacred duty of an archivist. As mentioned above, you had alternatives if you thought that photo was unacceptable for the display. You could have chosen a different photo. You could have included a note indicating the photo was altered, how, and why. This is an acceptable practice for journalists though, in my opinion, still not acceptable for an archivist.

      You “fixing” your “mistake” after being caught is not good enough. Taking out Trump’s name completely erases the entire context of the photo. He was the REASON that event occurred, and you scrubbed it out. Now the photo is just a bunch of angry women (gosh, they should really take a chill pill, why are they so upset?). Trump stated, “…when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ‘em by the pussy.” And you dare to rewrite history.

      The reason our country is so toxic is because there have been no real consequences for bad behavior for a long time. That will change. If you truly are remorseful, if you truly are sorry for your behavior, then resign. That is what a person of integrity would do.

    2. You have many good points. However, I would prefer that David Ferriero not resign. He has many good qualities and is dealing with a difficult situation. A replacement could easily be much worse. Hopefully this incident will make the exhibit leadership more sensitive to these issues.

    3. Hey great example:
      09/01/20 Google features Jackie Ormes
      https://www.google.com/doodles/celebrating-jackie-ormes

      A Black female cartoonist who created Torchy Brown & Patty-Jo n Ginger comic strips. Torchy first appeared in 1937. 1937. Pretty remarkable. One would think she would stand out in history.

      Never heard of her or her work. I wonder why that is? Erasure/censorship, you know, like what happened here with this exhibit. By people who are supposed to preserve history.

  11. I appreciate this forthright statement. I traveled hundreds of miles to Washington D.C. to attend the march on 1/21/17 and I was very upset to learn that at the Archives the image had tampered with so that some messages were not readable. Thank you for fixing this error and pledging to do better going forward.

  12. Thank you for modeling a rare ethic these days- a clear mea culpa with an immediate correction. Free speech, enshrined in our beloved Constitution, is guaranteed to make us uncomfortable or angry at times. No difference of opinion= no democracy. Good manners with respect is the basic guidepost of a healthy discourse. The courage to listen to our opponents. Your response is appropriate, ethical, and displays integrity. The mistake actually adds a critically needed level of discourse as a response to our challenged dialogue between free and ethical media, government agencies, elected officials and our fellow citizens. Our democracy is being challenged by the very people we have entrusted to defend it, and you and this institution are among the cornerstones that together defend the meaning of democracy. We protect our democracy together. I was there, three years in a row, in my state capital, with my own signs homemade in my garage. The signs speak truth to history, herstory, ourstory. Bravo. If you need pictures, I have some.

  13. I agree with Eric, that the blurred document should be displayed as it is now a part of the history of the National Archive. As for the person responsible, Laura has expressed the only cure.

    Leonard

    1. This is why it matters; it’s NOT in the past. See AP News article & link at bottom from TODAY. The man whose name was blurred out of the photo is demanding that if I’m raped and become pregnant, I MUST give birth. He sees women only in ways that they service him – as birthing vessels and sex toys. I refuse to be dehumanized. Anyone protecting someone sending that message is complicit in that message. Truth is everything. Consequences are everything. Right Matters.

      AP News: Trump, a late convert to cause, attends anti-abortion rally
      https://apnews.com/1210f9012eec9818b25ac9abad46b955

      1. Again TODAY. This is what misogyny, lack of consequences, and silencing looks like to women. NPR reporter Mary Louise Kelly was purely professional despite a powerful man threatening and demeaning her. Also, luckily, Amb Yovanovitch made it out of Ukraine alive, no thanks to the corrupt and unaccountable men in charge: https://twitter.com/davidgura/status/1220838347767238657. I’ll have more to post tomorrow as news continues to unfold. This silencing and violence against women is systematic. Right Matters.

      2. 01/25/20 And Pompeo’s hateful and disrespectful response because his treatment of a female reporter of utmost integrity was made public, i.e. he was CAUGHT. Everyone knows what is spoken to reporters is fair game unless there’s a prior agreement of off-the-record, which he failed to obtain. Pompeo isn’t stupid (debatable), he was CIA Director. How dare a woman hold a powerful man to his word? How dare women publicly demand to be treated with respect? How dare women call out, in his (Trump’s) own language (“pussy”), the systemic oppression assailing us on a daily basis? Oh wait, the photo didn’t show the “why” or supporting language because the context was erased. Truth Matters. Right Matters. https://twitter.com/ColbyItkowitz/status/1221093503314419713

      3. Per official Pompeo spokesperson: “@Statedept is committed to empowering women” https://twitter.com/statedeptspox/status/1220778143537037313. How does lying publicly about a female reporter “empower” HER? https://twitter.com/davidgura/status/1221095199008546816. Again, he was CAUGHT. We must pay attention to ALL behavior, not just the sanitized official channel, to show us the truth. Erasing pieces alters history. Truth Matters. Right Matters. Explain to me how editing the photo protected the American people. I’m listening.

    2. Per official Pompeo spokesperson: “@Statedept is committed to empowering women” https://twitter.com/statedeptspox/status/1220778143537037313. How does lying publicly about a female reporter “empower” HER? https://twitter.com/davidgura/status/1221095199008546816. Again, he was CAUGHT. We must pay attention to ALL behavior, not just the sanitized official channel, to show us the truth. Erasing pieces alters history. Truth Matters. Right Matters. Explain to me how editing the photo protected the American people. I’m listening.

  14. The National Archives, and the American people, are fortunate to have David Ferriero, a leader of decency and integrity.

    1. Integrity and decency do not demand that bad actors only stop acting badly once caught. Those of integrity and decency correct their own actions based on their conscience.

  15. Either there is a technical glitch, they have locked down comments on this post (without notice), or I individually have been locked out (silenced). I will attempt to post this a second time. If it duplicates, my apologies.

    Per official Pompeo spokesperson: “@Statedept is committed to empowering women” https://twitter.com/statedeptspox/status/1220778143537037313. How does lying publicly about a female reporter “empower” HER? https://twitter.com/davidgura/status/1221095199008546816. Again, he was CAUGHT. We must pay attention to ALL behavior, not just the sanitized official channel, to show us the truth. Erasing pieces alters history. Truth Matters. Right Matters. Explain to me how editing the photo protected the American people. I’m listening.

  16. Per official Pompeo spokesperson: “@Statedept is committed to empowering women” https://twitter.com/statedeptspox/status/1220778143537037313. How does lying publicly about a female reporter “empower” HER? https://twitter.com/davidgura/status/1221095199008546816. Again, he was CAUGHT. We must pay attention to ALL behavior, not just the sanitized official channel, to show us the truth. Erasing pieces alters history. Truth Matters. Right Matters. Explain to me how editing the photo protected the American people. I’m listening.

  17. Per official Pompeo spokesperson: “@Statedept is committed to empowering women” https://twitter.com/statedeptspox/status/1220778143537037313. How does lying publicly about a female reporter “empower” HER? https://twitter.com/davidgura/status/1221095199008546816. Again, he was CAUGHT. We must pay attention to ALL behavior, not just the sanitized official channel, to show us the truth. Erasing pieces alters history. Truth Matters. Right Matters. Explain to me how editing the photo protected the American people. I’m listening.

  18. I could keep posting daily examples of how women are silenced. Luckily, NPR reporter Kelly is well known, and Pompeo couldn’t successfully assassinate her reputation. Very expectedly, our president jumped into the fray by threatening to shut down National Public Radio (silencing her and everyone like her). You know, that guy whose name was in the photo. Truth Matter. Right Matters.
    https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/emails-support-npr-host-after-pompeo-calls-her-a-liar-in-setting-up-contentious-interview/2020/01/26/d793cf0e-4071-11ea-b503-2b077c436617_story.html

  19. You were “damned if you did and damned if you didn’t” in this case. Had you posted the photo in full, there would have been condemnation from another sector, a demand for a cut in NARA funding, and probably also a Tweet-storm that, in a few short hours, would have spread to hundreds of thousands of readers, complete with the sort of false accounts that tend to grow when such sharing happens — we’ve already seen this kind of thing recently.

  20. I cannot express how disappointed I was when news of the Woman’s March photo alterations were exposed. I have a deep love for nonpartisan institutions, during my education at Eastern Washington University I spent much of my free time studying at our state archive. I would not have my degree or my love of history without the institution. I’ve lost faith in every aspect of my country over the last few years (via my education of our past and the state of our nation today) but not the archive, not institutions that categorize, harbor and share the history of the United States and the world. Though the doctored photos were leased to the archive and the edits have been corrected, I am left to question what else has been doctored, edited and removed. It is not up to you or anyone to decide what is family friendly or moral. That is not the task of history. Its like learning a spouse kinda-sorta cheated in the past, and now I am questioning our entire relationship. I will always support the work of preservation, attainment and distribution the Archive provides, but I must admit I feel a little bit older in the worst way.

  21. This type of conduct on the part of the Archives really shouldn’t surprise anyone (particularly those who have ever worked for NARA). While they may exist (in theory) to promote transparency, this is not something that is always put into practical application. If they as an agency were willing to cover up for the former AOTUS (Allen Weinstein) when he sexually assaulted and/or harassed half a dozen women, altering a photograph seems minor in comparison. Many of those (such as NARA’s General Counsel) who allegedly helped to try and keep Mr. Weinstein’s unlawful conduct from the public’s attention still work for NARA today under Mr. Ferriero’s leadership. How fitting it is that this type of controversy would arise during an exhibit of this nature taking into consideration NARA’s own troubled history when it comes to the treatment of women. https://www.thedailybeast.com/she-was-assaulted-by-the-head-of-the-national-archives-then-the-bush-white-house-helped-cover-it-up-3

  22. Greeeeeat. Previous AOTUS was a rapist, never punished (as usual), and enablers still there. Awesome. Here’s some extra anti-harassment training: 1) Treat women like human beings not as property or sex objects, 2) keep your dick in your pants. It’s not difficult. I’ll help nail it down if you’re unable to succeed in this simple task. Shouldn’t need to train men not to rape. https://aotus.blogs.archives.gov/2018/02/06/national-archives-does-not-tolerate-harassment/

    1. The blog post you reference is little more than lip service (and a far cry from the truth). You should (for example) reach out to NARA and ask them what their position is on domestic (or dating) violence once it enters the workplace, and inquire about what measures they take to assist employees who have been the victims of this type of (criminal) conduct at NARA.

    2. Dear L. NARA also has a history of turning a blind eye and/or not holding women accountable when they engage in harassment towards men. It’s a two way street, and if you think men are the only side of the coin to engage in harassing conduct I would strongly encourage you to spend some time looking at the facts from an objective perspective. While men typically aren’t the victims in these situations, it doesn’t mean that they can’t find themselves on the receiving end of harassment.

      1. You either don’t understand the goals of feminists or you’re a bad actor stirring up crap. Bad behavior should be punished no matter who commits it. Justice is justice. The vast majority of people who commit sex crimes are men, that’s why I focus on them.

        It’s amusing how misogynists whine “but men suffer too!” & call us feminazis when what we actually believe is equality for all. That includes you, those who are fighting against us. Men who are sexually assaulted should also receive justice, not be shamed for being a victim, and receive medical & emotional support.

        We all, men and women, need to unlearn harmful beliefs that have been hammered into us since birth. Women are not worthless, not property, not disposable. It’s ok for men to express emotion. It’s ok for men to collaborate rather than dominate.

  23. Along those lines, I feel strongly that the archives should retain (rather than destroy) the altered display along with whatever other documentation (for example, letters of protest) that can help provide context for its removal.

  24. Gosh, if we lived in New Zealand with a smart, caring leader, we’d be safely reopened by now. Huh – never saw that coming. Love, Cassandra xoxo

    https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/29/politics/trump-phone-calls-national-security-concerns/index.html

    “But his most vicious attacks…were aimed at women heads of state. In conversations with both May and Merkel, the President demeaned and denigrated them in diatribes described as ‘near-sadistic’”

    “[Fiona] Hill — author of a definitive biography of Putin — started to explain some of the nuances she perceived from the call…offering insight into Putin’s psychology…Hill was cut off by Trump, and the President continued discussing the call with Jared and Ivanka, making clear he wanted to hear the congratulatory evaluation of his daughter and her husband, rather than how Hill, Tillerson or McMaster judged the conversation.”

    “Trump made the focus of the call — in personally demeaning terms — Germany’s and Merkel’s supposedly deadbeat approach to allied burden-sharing.”

  25. It appears AOTUS supporters will always leave the last word long after the conversation is over. Let’s see if it happens again, shall we? Oh hey, if women have a problem with “Grab em by the pussy” because it translates to “I am ok with rape,” for you men out there who can’t/won’t put 2+2 together, it means that person will cross any line. Like now. Just takes time for us to be proven right. After massive irreparable harm. Which we are trying to avoid. Would’ve been less painful if ya’ll listened.

  26. Here we are. Buckle up, folks. Things are gonna be truly horrific through Jan.

    You either truly believe in freedom or you’re a fascist. That barbeque smell in Auschwitz is not pork. You either call things out for what they are or inevitably get hauled away in confusion because you thought you were safe. If the people are censored for quoting actual words that fall out of our leader’s mouth, “Grab em by the pussy,” then we are already on the downward slope of autocracy, possibly from no return. Ignore me at your peril. Survivors recognize warning signs a mile away. Our eyes are open.

    P.S. Does it bother Death Cult members that NRA & We Build the Wall fleeced their devoted followers? You worship them & they betray you. Not us, you. Because you’re too deluded to recognize corruption.

  27. Hmm. Mushi’s post is gone. Only those w/access to edit capabilities can do that. Thanks for proving my point 😊

    • White supremacy
    • Unidentified figures of authority kidnapping citizens
    • Medical experimentation
    • Voter suppression
    • Sabotage of election

    My fascist bingo card is complete! And this conversation all started with quietly censoring history. #HereRightMatters

  28. Hi menofskys, YouTech, OMGeeky!

    What incels fail to understand is that their own horrible, violent behavior is the reason they’re lonely. The simple solution is to respect others.

    The man whose name was censored from this exhibit refuses to respect women, the theme of this exhibit. Like incels, he feels he has a right to “grab em by the pussy.” Which is sexual assault. This is the logical response to his bad behavior: https://www.npr.org/sections/death-of-ruth-bader-ginsburg/2020/09/24/916465713/honor-her-wish-protesters-shout-as-trump-pays-respects-to-ginsburg

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