The National Archives is one of the most imposing and beautiful buildings designed by architect John Russell Pope, who also created the West Building of the National Gallery of Art, the Jefferson Memorial and many of the finest houses, churches and association offices in the nation’s capital. Pope was a principal adviser on the design of what is known as Federal Triangle, where the Archives is located, and he was an architect keenly alert to the power of symbols in urban design. When planning the Archives, he succeeded in persuading the government to situate it where it now stands, on Pennsylvania Avenue halfway between the U.S. Capitol and the White House, suggesting its neutrality within the checks-and-balances system of the government.
Now the Archives has foolishly compromised the public’s sense of its independence, so artfully embedded in its landmark building. By blurring out details from protest signs in an image of the 2017 Women’s March, including the name of President Trump and references to the female anatomy — a decision the Archives publicly apologized for on Saturday — it has damaged the faith many Americans, particularly women, may have had in its role as an impartial conservator of the nation’s records. It has unnecessarily squandered something that cannot easily be regained.
There must be consequences.
An Archives spokeswoman told The Washington Post the changes to a large-format image included in an exhibition about women’s suffrage were made “so as not to engage in current political controversy.” If that was the intent, they obviously failed, embroiling the institution in exactly the controversy they say they wanted to avoid. But no matter the proferred explanation or statement of apology, the decision indicates a lack of leadership and distinct confusion about the mission at the Archives. If the Archives wants to teach Americans about history, then it must be scrupulously honest in its presentation of all documentary evidence.
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The blunder is egregious for multiple reasons. It indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of history among those responsible for the exhibition. The Women’s March on Jan. 21, 2017, was not a march for suffrage, which was extended to women in 1920. It was a march for equality, dignity and fair treatment. For many who attended, those issues were newly urgent given the man who had been inaugurated the day before. Many of the signs at the march were directed at Trump’s denigrating language, his cavalier comments about groping and kissing women without their consent, his support for denying them the right to control their own bodies and the many accusations of harassment and assault he has denied but never disproved.
Inequality, for women today, is not an abstraction, but something understood directly through their bodies, through legislative and regulatory efforts to deny them reproductive freedom, through the fear of assault and through inequities built into our system, from bathrooms to medical research, that makes female bodies — which outnumber male bodies in the United States by several millions — the exception to the male-dominated norms and rules.
Thus, scrubbing out references to women’s anatomy in the image was not a benign or neutral act of family-friendly censorship. It was censorship of the fundamental message of the Women’s March.
Scrubbing out negative comments about Trump is at least as disturbing, given the ballooning crisis of confidence in democratic institutions. America teeters on the precipice of authoritarianism, and that jeopardy affects every institution, no matter how seemingly detached from partisan politics its mission. The National Park Service was dragged into this vortex from the first day of Trump’s term, when a government photographer cropped out empty space in an image of the Mall taken during the president’s relatively sparsely attended inauguration. Our armed forces were dragged into it as well, when the president used military hardware as a prop for a rally at the Lincoln Memorial last July 4. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was entangled in the administration’s tortuous relation to truth when it backed the president’s false claim, complete with an altered storm map, that a hurricane had threatened Alabama last year.
Every institution will be tested, and the Archives has failed. To recover from this terrible mistake, it may be necessary to get out of the business of presenting exhibitions. The impulse to teach history is admirable, but history is never neutral, and institutions have a tendency to equate their mission with the triumph of larger historical forces. At the now shuttered Newseum, journalists were sometimes presented more as prophets and agents of social change, like the civil rights movement, than neutral observers. It is difficult, and sometimes impossible, for institutions to present history dispassionately without also flattering themselves for playing a constructive role in the drama.
The National Archives is in a particularly difficult position, which can be seen in its basic architecture and the allegorical figures that broadcast its mission. Pope emphasized the Archives’ independence by including a dry moat surrounding the building (now altered), massive bronze doors suggesting impregnability and giant porticos with columns on all sides that indicate its intent to rise above the fray in all directions. He dramatized its purpose with statues at its Constitution Avenue entrance, one a female figure dubbed “Heritage,” the other a male figure called “Guardianship.”
The main thrust of its symbolism is blunt enough: This building protects American heritage. But it is gendered symbolism, with heritage seen as bearing the seeds of the future, and guardianship depicted with the appurtenances of war. And heritage, in the United States, is fraught with violence, racism, anti-Semitism and misogyny, carefully packaged in storybook visions of well-intentioned, white-dominated patriarchy.
Given the severity of this recent blunder, it is not clear the Archives can be trusted to finesse our most complicated cultural and archival challenge, a reassessment of history that is rigorous, honest and inclusive. If the institution’s leadership wants to make amends, however, there are two places to start. Replace the image with the original, uncensored one. And seek out the women whose signs were airbrushed out of history and give each of them a genuine apology.