When the US National Archives start censoring historic photos…

To celebrate the 100th year of (white) women’s suffrage, the US National Archives created a special exhibition. At the entrance, a large color photograph of the Women’s March which took place the day after President Trump’s inauguration that, when viewed from another perspective, morphs into a different black and white photograph of women marching for suffrage back in 1913. A really impactful visual linking the present to the past.

Except the modern photo had been altered.

Per the Washington Post article on the topic:

The Archives acknowledged in a statement this week that it made multiple alterations to the photo of the 2017 Women’s March showcased at the museum, blurring signs held by marchers that were critical of Trump. Words on signs that referenced women’s anatomy were also blurred.


“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. “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.”

Archive officials did not respond to a request to provide examples of previous instances in which the Archives altered a document or photograph so as not to engage in political controversy.

A sign in the original, unaltered photo of the 2017 Women’s March on Washington. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)An altered version of the sign as it appears in the photograph shown at the National Archives. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Left is a sign in the original, unaltered photo of the 2017 Women’s March on Washington (Mario Tama/Getty Images) while above is an altered version of the sign as it appears in the photograph shown at the National Archive(Salwan Georges/The Washington Post). 

As a fellow information professional, I am speechless that any form of censorship was approved as part of the National Archive’s display. While I can understand not wanting to appear to endorse a certain political statement, an archive presenting historical artifacts as they are – unedited, uncensored, representing the reality of that moment – is simply an archive doing its job. Someone who believes that a political agenda comes with factually representing a historic moment is someone who has much to learn from keeping the truth uncensored and confrontational.

On a somehow both related and unrelated note, it was recently announced that the National Archives in Seattle is closing. The plan is to move the collection out of state into California and Kansas. The most frustrating part of this move is that the collection contains many tribal documents, some which have already been moved out of Alaska down to Seattle. Now those documents will be even further removed from the tribes whose history they, in part, represent.