The National Archives apologized on Saturday for using a censored image from the 2017 Women’s March on which it had digitally obscured mentions of President Trump and women’s anatomy on marchers’ protest signs. The nonpartisan federal agency — which is tasked with documenting, preserving, and providing public access to U.S. government and historical records — had installed the altered photograph outside an exhibit looking back at the women’s suffrage movement. An agency spokesperson had originally defended the use of the photo as an attempt to avoid political controversy. That plan didn’t work out very well, and the ensuing scandal struck just as the fourth annual Women’s March returned to the capital.
The fallout began on Friday night, when the Washington Post called attention to a large lenticular image introducing the National Archives exhibit, “Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote,” which has been open since May and “examines the relentless struggle of diverse activists throughout U.S. history to secure voting rights for all American women.” In the display, depending on their viewing angle, visitors would see either a photograph of a women’s suffrage march up Pennsylvania Avenue in 1913, or of protesters marching up Pennsylvania Avenue during the Women’s March on Washington, as seen in its unaltered form below:
The 2017 Women’s March on Washington was widely seen and experienced as a mass demonstration against the newly inaugurated President Trump and the threat he and his political allies represented to women’s rights. That cause was evident from many of the signs protesters carried that day, but in the image displayed at the National Archives, at least four signs were altered so that “Trump” and terms regarding women’s anatomy like “vagina” and “pussy” were obscured.
As a result, one protester’s sign said “God Hates [ ]” while another’s warned, “This [ ] Grabs Back.”
Archives spokeswoman Miriam Kleiman initially defended the changes in a statement to the Post, insisting that the agency removed Trump’s name from signs “so as not to engage in current political controversy” and in an attempt “to keep the focus on the records.” The agency also obscured the anatomy terms out of fear they could be seen as inappropriate for children visiting the museum.
Kleiman pointed out that the Women’s March image was not an artifact the agency was tasked with preserving, but part of a promotional display. She insisted the Archives “only alters images in exhibits when they are used as graphic design components” — but the agency did not provide the Post with any examples of previous alterations.
Historians and archivists who were reached by the Post and New York Times for comment about the image were aghast over the agency’s actions — as were many more instant experts on Twitter. The National Archives “foolishly compromised the public’s sense of its independence,” insisted a Post editorial, while Rinku Sen, the president of the Women’s March board, called agency’s move a “symbol of the degradation of democracy.”
By Saturday afternoon, less than 24 hours since the original Post report, the Archives had done a complete about-face. “We made a mistake,” the agency announced, emphasizing a commitment “to preserving our archival holdings, without alteration.” Though the Women’s March image was not an “archival record,” agency officials acknowledged that “we were wrong to alter the image,” and said they had removed the display and would replace it as soon as possible with the unedited original photograph.
“We apologize, and will immediately start a thorough review of our exhibit policies and procedures so that this does not happen again,” the statement concluded.
Afterwards, historian Douglas Brinkley told the Post he was relieved to hear that the National Archives was “out of the Photoshop business.” But other critics were less satisfied:
And now that the controversy had gained widespread media coverage, the man god originally hated on that uncensored sign may soon want to weigh in with a sign of his own protest.