How the National Archives’ Notorious Alteration of a Women’s March Photo Is Part of a Long American Tradition
Two professors explain how the image fits into the history of a country that has long sought to avoid discomfort.
It was the photograph that outraged a thousand archivists.
On January 18, the National Archives in Washington, DC, was forced to issue a public apology for altering a photo of the January 21, 2017 Women’s March to obscure slogans written on four of the posters that referred either to President Trump or women’s genitalia. The photo—which was removed that same day and then restored, unretouched, on Wednesday—had been displayed in the museum’s lobby to promote an exhibition commemorating the centenary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote.
As historians ourselves, we know that the historical campaign for women’s suffrage is an explicitly visual history. It is, therefore, a special irony that an exhibition commemorating the suffragist movement suppressed the power of images from the Women’s March.
David Ferriero, the top archivist at the National Archives, said in a statement on Wednesday that the decision to blur the signs was driven by a desire “to avoid accusations of partisanship or complaints that we displayed inappropriate language in a family-friendly Federal museum.” (Of course, sexual vulgarity has been a common theme in efforts to censor art throughout history.) In this case, the thinking seems to have been that it is fine to show women protesting, but not what they are protesting about.
The blurring of the photograph was swiftly and universally condemned by professional historians and curators, including the Association of American Archivists. The American Historical Association said the decision to alter the photograph to “sanitize or whitewash history” amounted to “distorting the historical record.” The National Coalition for History sent a letter complaining that “the possibility that those charged with preserving and maintaining the historic record of our nation can alter a representation of the past, such as a photograph, diminishes trust in both the National Archives and the federal government.”
But this event did not happen in a vacuum. In fact, the astonishing decision to alter the photograph is a result of the confluence of two powerful forces: one new and one old.
On one hand, it transpires in the era of “fake news,” where the flow of information and images on the web is growing exponentially with few checks on veracity. New “deepfake” techniques make it easier than ever for people to manipulate images and video to alter—or, indeed, entirely invent—what is being shown.
In this increasingly challenging media environment, there is a president who aids and abets the erosion of objective truth—and who is more than likely than any leader before him to lash out at a publicly funded body like the National Archives for commemorating an event, such as the Women’s March, that protests his presidency. It is reasonable to assume that the National Archives were not worried about the impact of the Women’s March photo on their young visitors—they were worried about its impact on the man in the White House.
After all, at Trump’s request, a government photographer cropped images of his inaugural parade to make the crowds look bigger. And in May of last year, the administration reportedly asked the Navy to hide a destroyer named after one of his most vocal critics, Senator John McCain, in order to avoid its appearance in photographs during Trump’s visit to a Japanese naval base.
But the bungling of the photo is also part of a long tradition of contestation and controversy surrounding public history. There are few nations that celebrate their failings in the public arena—but compared to countries like Germany or Rwanda, the United States is among the most avoidant.
Indeed, the US has long struggled to determine the extent to which public institutions should wade into controversies about how to interpret sensitive issues in the nation’s history. In 1995, in the face of opposition from veterans’ groups, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum was forced to walk back a plan to display the Enola Gay bomber within an exhibit that discussed the historical context and legacy of the atomic bomb and also included graphic photos of atomic bomb victims. Four years earlier, Republican Senators had threatened to withhold funding from the Smithsonian following an art exhibition that questioned heroic images of the frontier. It also took until 2018, following many years of resistance, for Monticello to open an exhibit on the life of Sally Hemings, who historians now accept was the enslaved mother of six of Thomas Jefferson’s children.
What distinguishes these past controversies from the Archives affair is that they involved hiding artifacts and information from public view or offering a new interpretation. The episode surrounding the Women’s March photo, on the other hand—one that is characteristic of the Trump era—involved actually altering an artifact being shown to visitors. The vigorous reaction from curators and historians shows that there is a clear consensus that this crossed a line. (A spokeswoman for the Archives clarified that the photograph was licensed for promotional purposes and not a part of its collection, but still acknowledged it should not have been altered.)
Images matter. They crystallize ideas and spur powerful emotional responses, and have often been used by protest movements to rally public attention to their cause. The 2017 Women’s Marches across the country saw an impressive variety of innovative visual creations encompassing image and text, including the oft-reproduced pussyhats. Some of these objects have been collected by museums, including London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.
By digitally blurring the slogans on the posters, the National Archive curators were erasing those voices from the public historical record.
It is worth noting that the visual history of suffrage—from hand-designed banners, posters, photographs, and postcards to televised mass demonstrations—was once neglected, too. It was dismissed as too artistic for political history and too political for the history of art. Today, a new generation of visual historians is studying how social movements leverage the power of images to promote their causes. But their job will be more difficult considering the current forces that threaten to alter our own histories to suit the winds of the present.
Artist Barbara Kruger has said, “I work with pictures and words because they have the ability to determine who we are and who we aren’t.” An authentic image can reveal history in the making—but, as it turns out, an altered one can, too. We just may not like what we see.
Jennifer Tucker is an associate professor of history and gender & sexuality studies at Wesleyan University. Peter Rutland is the Colin and Nancy Campbell Professor in Global Issues and Democratic Thought at Wesleyan.
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