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Exhibiting the Past

Correspondence with NARA

James Grossman | Mar 9, 2020

James Grossman

On January 19, 2020, the AHA sent a letter to David Ferriero, the Archivist of the United States, objecting to the alteration of a photograph on display from the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, DC, and praising the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) staff for acknowledging this serious lapse in judgment. Our comment was one of many that NARA received from organizations and individuals across the country expressing concern about that decision. Ferriero responded to the AHA’s letter on January 24, specifically referring to our concerns about the significance of faithfulness to the historical record. Because of the importance of this exchange, we publish both letters here.

January 19, 2020

The Honorable David S. Ferriero
Archivist of the United States

Dear Mr. Ferriero:

I write regarding the recent furor over the indefensible decision by NARA to substantively alter a photograph as part of the exhibition Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote. The American Historical Association acknowledges and applauds your apology and admission that it was “wrong to alter the image.” But the incident itself is disturbing: modifying a document on exhibition and thereby distorting the historical record. This lapse in professional ethics must be addressed as NARA reconsiders the policies and procedures that resulted in this serious error.

We recognize that exhibitions staff make choices about what historical artifacts to display and how to contextualize them. Once an object is chosen for presentation, however, the professional standards of historians, archivists, librarians, and other keepers of the public trust forbid its alteration, with occasional allowance for minor, non-substantive cropping for publicity purposes. Visitors must have confidence that what they are seeing is authentic. For the National Archives, the custodian of the official public record of the United States, to make such a decision is as inexcusable as it is unthinkable.

Visitors must have confidence that what they are seeing is authentic.

We also note, as NARA has pointed out, that the original photograph at Getty Images is available and remains unaltered. While we appreciate that the integrity of the original source remains unaffected, however, it is contrary to standards of historical scholarship to present an altered document as if it were historically accurate. There was no explanatory note to indicate what had been changed and why.

As historians we rely on the National Archives to adhere to—indeed to model—the highest standards for ensuring document preservation, provenance, integrity, and historical validity. Scholars, teachers, researchers, and genealogists trust the National Archives, and for good reason. But that trust crumbles if the documentary record appears to have been altered to sanitize or whitewash history. NARA has taken an admirable initial step in assuring this trust by admitting error and promising a reconsideration of policies. Such admission seems to be rare these days in so many environments, and affirms our confidence in the integrity of NARA staff.

The AHA stands ready to be helpful as NARA reconsiders its exhibition policies and procedures to make sure that its exhibitions maintain the standards of accuracy and integrity that we have come to expect from the agency.

Sincerely,

James Grossman
Executive Director


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 nonpartisan.

NARA is now working to correct our actions as quickly and transparently as possible.

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.

Sincerely,

David S. Ferriero
Archivist of the United States


James Grossman is executive director of the AHA. He tweets @JimGrossmanAHA.


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