Blurring the Lines of Democracy: National Archives Edits Protest Images

Evelyn Ford, Scarlet Staff

The National Archives and Records Administration installed photos of the 2017 Women’s March this January in which some words and Trump’s name were blurred from protest posters. The edited photos were replaced with the originals days later after significant public outrage. 

The words “vagina” and “pussy,” as well as President Trump’s name – which was written on signs reading “God Hates Trump” and “Trump & GOP — Hands Off Women” – were blurred from photos, The Post reported. 

The National Archives claimed they blurred the images to avoid projecting a political stance. “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,” an archives spokeswoman told the Post.

The National Archives and Records Administration has a responsibility to maintain an objective stance when recording history, but isn’t making the conscious decision to blur Trump’s name from the images as much of a statement as installing the unedited pictures? 

“We wanted to use the 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,” said David S. Ferriero, an archivist.

Blurring out the words “vagina” and “pussy” for the sake of being “family-friendly” devalues the history the archives museum is supposed to record. It is the duty of the national archive to record history, and blurring out images in an attempt to remain non-partisan is not recording history, but erasing it. 

Blurring the images from the march also sends a message that silencing women and all protestors is acceptable. “The National Archives are our public historians and historians are not meant to change history but to report it,” she said. “To me, it says that censoring women is a thing that people think they can do,” Rinku Sen, a president of the board of directors for the Women’s March told the New York Times. 

The National Archives feared presenting bias by displaying political images from the march, but by editing the images have drawn attention to a much more pressing issue: a threat to democracy in the form of censorship. 

Rhae Lynn Barnes, a professor of American Cultural History at Princeton University, told the New York Times, “American history is hopeful and uplifting and triumphant, but it’s also dark and disturbing. Our job is to hold both of those truths and tensions together and properly contextualize the past so current and future generations can make up their own minds about the significance of what happened and empower themselves.”

If the keepers of history have the power to make decisions about how it is presented, there is a serious threat to the future of democracy. The National Archives and Records Administration’s mistake, while egregious and concerning, was rectified quickly, but begs the question: will the next occurrence of censorship be so easily fixed?