The American Historian

The Trouble with NARA: It’s More than the Altered Photo

Joanne Meyerowitz

Earlier this year, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) blundered its way into the news.  As many of you already know, NARA came under fire for altering a large photograph at the entrance to its exhibition on women’s suffrage, “Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote.” To acknowledge the unfinished struggle for women’s rights, NARA posted an image of the 2017 Women’s March that took place the day after President Trump’s inauguration, and it blurred some of the protest signs to render words illegible.  In the altered image, placards that protested Trump were changed to hide his name. A sign that originally stated “God Hates Trump” appeared instead as “God Hates,” and on other signs, the words “pussy” and “vagina” were obscured. Hardly the wisest move for a federal institution specifically charged with preserving and protecting the nation’s historical record.

The exhibition opened in May 2019, but the problematic photo escaped public notice until January 17, 2020, when the Washington Post broke the story.  The Post reporter, Joe Heim, encountered the photo on a trip to the Archives to write about tourists who came to see the U.S. Constitution.  He noticed the blurred signs, and then compared the altered photo to the original, which he found online. He contacted NARA, where a spokeswoman told him that staff members had decided to modify the image to avoid “political controversy” and to remove words “inappropriate” for young visitors.  The alteration was acceptable, she claimed, because the photo was “part of a promotional display, not an artifact.” But NARA had clearly tampered with historical evidence, and the attempt to explain it away, while wholly understandable, was also wholly inadequate. 

Just one day after the Post story, NARA reversed course.  It issued a penitent press release under the headline “National Archives Apologizes for Alteration of Women’s March Image.” The opening lines stated, “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.”  The photograph in question was not an archival holding, but NARA conceded, “we were wrong to alter the image.” It promised “a thorough review of our exhibit policies and procedures so that this does not happen again.” And it removed the offending photo and soon replaced it with the original image.  

But the new approach to damage control failed to stanch the negative publicity.  After the apology, dozens of news outlets carried the story, and various organizations wrote to condemn the bad archival practice.  The National Coalition for History, to which the OAH belongs, sent a letter of concern to David S. Ferriero, the Archivist of the United States.  “Trying to make history more palatable,” it stated, “is unnecessary and neither your role nor that of our government.”  The American Historical Association (AHA) sent a letter of its own.  The American Civil Liberties Union joined in as well.  “Doctoring the photo,” its deputy legal director, Louise Melling, blogged, “was nothing less than Orwellian. Instead of documenting history, the National Archives had altered history to mask criticism of the president and erase our bodies.”  Within two months, the controversy wended its way from news reports, protest letters, blogs, and tweets and onto NARA’s Wikipedia page.

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The drama of the altered photo—the “gotcha” moment, the speedy apology, and the flood of critical comments—captured public attention for a week or so, but it’s only the most visible sign of deeper trouble at NARA.  The National Archives is underfunded and understaffed. When held in constant 2020 dollars, Congressional appropriations for NARA have declined by $42 million over the past ten years. NARA today has slightly fewer employees than it had in 1985, and it has seven additional presidential libraries.  It holds 3.7 million more cubic feet of archival holdings and 12.6 million more cubic feet of federal agency records than it held thirty-five years ago. The volume of materials sent for processing has grown wildly, including digital records that require new infrastructure for preservation and access.   The Obama Presidential Library, for example, holds the equivalent of 1.5 billion pages of emails. Not surprisingly, NARA has a backlog of records that should be processed and declassified, and researchers routinely note the long delays, shorter hours, and limited access to holdings and services at NARA’s facilities.

To add to the problem, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) recently recommended the closure of the seventy-three-year-old NARA facility in Seattle.  The OMB hopes to sell the property and save the money needed to repair the building and operate the center. It would relocate the holdings to Missouri and Southern California, hundreds of miles away, and thereby limit local and regional access to permanent records on the history of Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington.  Historians who teach in the region’s educational institutions, indigenous peoples who need legal records on treaty rights and tribal lands, local genealogists who conduct family research, and many others use the collections in Seattle. The cost-saving measure would not only restrict their access; it would also remove holdings from the care of staff with specialized knowledge of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.  The National Coalition for History, the OAH, and the AHA have all protested the decision.

NARA, it seems, is wasting away, and the Trump administration has little concern for its health. The president’s requested budget for the fiscal year 2021 once again proposes to cut the appropriation for NARA.  And the White House is not preserving its own records as mandated by law. In 2019, three non-profit organizations—Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, the National Security Archive, and the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations— sued to force the Trump administration to document its communications with foreign leaders.   A few weeks ago, a U.S. District Court judge dismissed the suit, ruling that the Court “lacks authority to oversee the President’s day-to-day compliance with the statutory provisions involved.” Congress would have to change the law. But the judge stated explicitly that she did not find that “the Executive Office is in compliance with its obligations.”  Without the records of government, how will NARA fulfill its mission?

Last spring T. J. Stiles, the Pulitzer-prizewinning biographer and a member of the OAH executive board, wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post about the budget crisis at NARA.  “America,” he stated, “is losing its memory.”  He reminds us that “NARA stands at the heart of American democracy.”  We need the Archives to preserve the nation’s history, to make the workings of government visible, to allow us to study and learn from the past.  Historians rely on NARA, and so do lawyers, journalists, and genealogists. But NARA is not just for professionals; it also serves a wider public that wants to explore family, local, and national history.  With a growing workload, fewer resources, inadequate staffing, and recalcitrant recordkeeping in the executive branch, NARA can no longer do its job as it should. The altered photograph is, perhaps, another indication of an agency in distress.

Author

Joanne Meyerowitz is the Arthur Unobskey Professor of History and American Studies at Yale University. She is the author of Women Adrift: Independent Wage Earners in Chicago, 1880–1930 and How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States, and the editor of Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, 1945–1960 and History and September 11th. Her current book project is tentatively titled A War on Global Poverty: The U.S., Development, and the Politics of Gender.