EDITORIAL: Blurring the mission of the National Archives

York Dispatch Editorial Board

There are many blurry images at the National Archives.

Ink that is several centuries old fades. Paintings are damaged by age. Improper storage makes film brittle and cracked.

But the mission of the archive remains clear: It preserves the historic documents of our country.

Apparently someone at the archives needs to be reminded of that.

An exhibit at the National Archives in D.C. celebrates the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. 

One of the first images to greet visitors was a large color photograph by Mario Tama of Getty Images taken on Jan. 21, 2017, of the Women's March on Pennsylvania Avenue in D.C. the day after President Donald Trump was inaugurated. It showed thousands of women, and some men, with a variety of signs, many wearing the bright pink, often handmade hats that were a feature of that protest.

But a closer look showed something disturbing about this image. Some of the signs had been blurred.

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According to The Washington Post, at least four of the signs protesters were holding had been altered in the photo the Archives was displaying. On one sign reading "God Hates Trump," Trump had been smudged out. A sign that said “Trump & GOP — Hands Off Women” had the word Trump blurred out. At the march featuring the pussy hat, a sign that said “If my vagina could shoot bullets, it’d be less REGULATED” had “vagina” blurred out, and another reading “This Pussy Grabs Back” has the word “Pussy” erased.

The decision to change the photo had been made by a number of people putting the exhibit together, and David S. Ferriero, the archivist of the United States who was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2009, knew about the alterations.

“As a non-partisan, non-political federal agency, we blurred references to the President’s name on some posters, so as not to engage in current political controversy,” Archives spokeswoman Miriam Kleiman said in an emailed statement to the Post. “Our mission is to safeguard and provide access to the nation’s most important federal records, and our exhibits are one way in which we connect the American people to those records. Modifying the image was an attempt on our part to keep the focus on the records.”

The National Archives building in Washington, D.C. (Dreamstime/TNS)

In other words, the National Archives decided it didn't want to offend the president and his supporters, so it changed an image.

The archives made a point of saying it didn't modify the archival photo, just the image that was on display. It has since removed the altered image and will be replacing it with an unaltered one, a statement said.

It also admitted it was wrong to change the image in the first place.

A protestor argues with a woman participating in the Women's March on Washington in Washington, D.C. Saturday, January 21, 2017. Amanda J. Cain photo

But better than apologizing would have been recognizing that altering an image goes against the mission of the National Archives.

History is not pretty. There are many documents in the National Archives that are horrifying, from manifests of slave ships to the Dred Scott decision to the Indian Removal Act of 1830. There are photos from the Civil War, World War I, World War II, Vietnam. 

None of them have been changed to avoid political controversy. None of them have been softened to help people connect. Instead they are displayed and preserved as the primary sources they are, showing us a glimpse of a certain point in history.

Jan. 21, 2017, was one of those points in history. Hundreds of thousands of people descended on Washington to protest the new president and his views on women. 

The words written on their signs that day should not be blurred in an Orwellian attempt to appease the Trump administration and its followers. The fact that the National Archives tried to change this moment in history, apparently without even being asked to do so, is enough to show that the mission of the archives itself is becoming blurred.