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Archivist of the United States’ Letter to the Museum Field

Category: Influence of Museums
Exterior front facade of the National Archives and Records Administration

Many in our field have expressed concern over the National Archives and Records Administration’s (NARA) troubling alteration of a 2017 photograph of the Women’s March. Since that time, the federal agency has removed the altered photograph and replaced it with the original, unaltered photo. We appreciate NARA’s swift response and, at his request, share the Archivist of the United States’ apology letter to the museum field below. –Laura L. Lott, President and CEO, American Alliance of Museums

Dear AAM Community,

I am writing in response to the many museum professionals who have expressed concern about NARA’s alteration of a photo of the 2017 Women’s March.  Many expressed dismay about the deceptive presentation of an altered photograph without an explanation of the alterations and the failure in the essential role of a government archives in providing reliable access to the unaltered records of government, free of any suspicion of political interference.  I want you to know that I take these concerns extremely seriously. I want to extend my apology and describe our next steps to American Alliance of Museum members and the entire museum community.

As many of 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, 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 museum community an apology. Any reason for doubt about our independence and commitment to professional ethics casts a pall over our field and is unacceptable in itself.

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 reproduction of 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 historic materials without alteration; as a museum proudly celebrating the accomplishments of women, we should accurately present 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 will carefully compare them with AAM’s core standards and code of ethics.  We will also study and adopt all relevant museum, archival and library best practices to ensure something like this never happens again.

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 dedicated 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.




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  1. Thank you for posting this. However, in light of other recent articles about activities at the National Archive, I feel that much more transparency is needed in terms of how the National Archive is handling the material it is responsible for. The National Archive represents the history of the United States as it happens. That is a tremendous task that needs to be done without the censorship or active involvement of other branches of government. If documents from ICE were slated to go to the National Archive per existing policy, then those documents should go to the National Archive unaltered and complete. This is not a partisan issue. This is about recording the present accurately, honestly, and completely. Anything else is a critical failure of the National Archive to fulfill its crucial duties.

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