News Topic

Advocacy, Archives & Records



David Ferriero, the Archivist of the United States, sent the following response to the AHA’s letter objecting to the alteration of a photograph on exhibition and praising NARA staff for acknowledging this serious lapse in judgement.

January 24, 2020

Dear Dr. Grossman,

Thank you for your letter of January 19, 2020 on behalf of the American Historical Association, in which you expressed concern and dismay that the National Archives had acted to sanitize the historical record, failed to uphold professional ethics, and presented an altered document as if it were unaltered, with no accompanying note to explain the changes that had been made.

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. We will reinstall the lenticular display as soon as a new one with the unaltered image can be delivered. We hope this will be the week of January 27.

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. I thank you and the entire AHA for your offer of assistance as we look for ways to strengthen our 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.


David S. Ferriero
Archivist of the United States