Alice Kessler-Harris's letter to the Archivist of the U.S. about altered photographic images, updated with his response

January 21, 2020

Dear Mr. Ferriero,

I write, as President of the Society of American Historians (SAH), regarding the recent outcry over the decision by the NARA to substantively alter a photograph as part of the exhibition, “Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote.”  We join with the American Historical Association in appreciated of your rapid response to the furor, and welcome your acknowledgement that it was “wrong to alter the image.”  But modifying a document (whether in the archive or on exhibition) distorts the historical record that the NA is bound to preserve, and we wonder if the chain of decisions that led to airbrushing out selected words and phrases requires further attention.

The membership of the Society of American Historians consists of some 400 of our country’s leading academic and non-academic historians. Our membership has an abiding stake in the preservation of documentary materials marked, as our by-laws state, by “intellectual freedom and untrammeled by censorship.”  We rely on the National Archives, a unique repository of documents that must be free from tampering, to model the highest standards for document preservation and historical integrity. 

We are concerned about a decision-making process that, without explanation, enabled the National Archives to present to the public an image that distorted the record. Once an object is chosen for presentation, professional standards of historians and archivists must surely prevail. In this instance, that did not happen. Someone thought it right to remove words that might be “offensive.”  Since the banners held by marchers in the photograph in question reflected deeply-felt opinions, airbrushing key words distorted the meaning of the march to those who participated in it and provided a misleading impression of its goals to observers. The changes altered the historical record, providing observers with an inaccurate, a false, account of the event.

As historians, we rely on the National Archives to uphold the highest standards of integrity in preserving and presenting our nation’s historical record. We cite your records in our work, and we refer students, colleagues and the general public to them with absolute confidence in their authenticity. We deeply hope that the NARA reconsiders the policies and procedures that resulted in this lapse in professional ethics.

Alice Kessler-Harris

On 29 January we received the following response:

Dear Dr. Kessler-Harris,

 Thank you for your letter of January 21, 2020 on behalf of the Society of American Historians, in which you expressed concern and dismay that the National Archives decision-making process allowed an image to be altered without providing an explanation of the changes we had made, resulting in a distorted and false presentation of an event.

 As you know, on Saturday, January 18, 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.

On Tuesday, January 21, I sent an apology to NARA staff members as well, and the next day I wrote a post on my blog, “Accepting Responsibility, Working to Rebuild Your Trust.” I also owe you and the entire professional community of historians an apology. I realize that the integrity of the National Archives is essential for historians to do their research, and any reason for doubt about our independence and commitment to archival ethics is unacceptable.

 We wanted to use the commercially-licensed 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.  For this reason, NARA blurred words in four of the protest signs in the 2017 march photograph, including President Trump’s name and female anatomical references. 

To be clear, the decision to alter the photograph was made without any external direction whatsoever.

We wrongly missed the overall implications of the alteration. We lost sight of our unique charge: as an archives, we must present materials 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 we must be completely and visibly non-partisan.

We are now working to correct our actions as quickly and transparently as possible. 

We immediately removed the lenticular display and replaced it with our apology letter. On Wednesday, January 22, we added the unaltered image of the 2017 march, placing it side-by-side with one from the 1913 rally. On Monday, January 27, we reinstalled the lenticular display as soon as the replacement with the unaltered image was delivered. 

We have also begun to examine internal exhibit policies and processes and we will study external best practices to ensure something like this never happens again. We will be looking for ways to strengthen our policies and procedures to ensure that we live up to the highest standards in the future.

As I stated in my blog post and want to emphasize again here, 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.