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Historians Object to National Archives' Altered Photo

January 21, 2020
 
 

The American Historical Association sent a letter to the National Archives over the long weekend, objecting to the agency’s decision -- now reversed -- to alter a picture of the 2017 Women’s March in Washington. The image, captured by photographer Mario Tama, clearly shows signs critical of President Donald Trump. But the photo recently appeared in an exhibition on women’s voting rights at the archives with Trump’s name and other words blurred. There was no accompanying explanation, according to The Washington Post. Facing criticism, including from historians, the archives originally said it was acting as a nonpartisan government agency and trying to be apolitical in censoring the photo. Then the archives issued an apology and said staff members would replace the display with unaltered images.

In his letter to the archives, James Grossman, executive director of the AHA, said, “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, he wrote, “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 to the archives “must have confidence that what they are seeing is authentic,” Grossman also said. For the archives, “the custodian of the official public record of the U.S., to make such a decision is as inexcusable as it is unthinkable.” Nevertheless, Grossman thanked the agency for admitting its misstep and correcting the error. The archives have “taken an admirable initial step in assuring this trust by admitting error and promising a reconsideration of policies,” he said. “Such admission seems to be rare these days in so many environments, and affirms our confidence in the integrity” of the agency’s staff.

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