Dear SAA Members,
I am writing to you in response to the Society of American Archivists (SAA) statement of January 19, 2020, “NARA Exhibit on 2017 Women’s March in Washington, DC”, in which SAA expressed its concern about NARA’s alteration of a photo of the Women’s March. The SAA statement explained that our action raised deep archival issues of falsification of historical records, politicization of the National Archives, and violations of archival ethics. I take these concerns extremely seriously, and want to reach out to you and the whole community of archivists represented by SAA to extend my apology to you and to describe our next steps.
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 as well, and the next day I wrote a post on my blog, “Accepting Responsibility, Working to Rebuild Your Trust.” I owe you and the entire professional community of archivists an apology, too. I realize that the integrity of the National Archives, the flagship archives of the United States, is essential to the entire profession. Any reason for doubt about our independence and commitment to archival ethics casts a pall over the profession 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 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 begun to examine internal exhibit policies and processes and we will incorporate external best practices to ensure something like this never happens again. The SAA Code of Ethics along with codes and standards from museums and other fields will be studied in our review.
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.
DAVID S. FERRIERO
ARCHIVIST OF THE UNITED STATES