The blurring of the photograph was swiftly and universally condemned by professional historians and curators, including the Association of American Archivists. The American Historical Association said the decision to alter the photograph to “sanitize or whitewash history” amounted to “distorting the historical record.” The National Coalition for History sent a lettercomplaining that “the possibility that those charged with preserving and maintaining the historic record of our nation can alter a representation of the past, such as a photograph, diminishes trust in both the National Archives and the federal government.”
After all, at Trump’s request, a government photographer cropped images of his inaugural parade to make the crowds look bigger. And in May of last year, the administration reportedly asked the Navy to hide a destroyer named after one of his most vocal critics, Senator John McCain, in order to avoid its appearance in photographs during Trump’s visit to a Japanese naval base.
But the bungling of the photo is also part of a long tradition of contestation and controversy surrounding public history. There are few nations that celebrate their failings in the public arena—but compared to countries like Germany or Rwanda, the United States is among the most avoidant.
Indeed, the US has long struggled to determine the extent to which public institutions should wade into controversies about how to interpret sensitive issues in the nation’s history. In 1995, in the face of opposition from veterans’ groups, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum was forced to walk back a plan to display the Enola Gay bomber within an exhibit that discussed the historical context and legacy of the atomic bomb and also included graphic photos of atomic bomb victims. Four years earlier, Republican Senators had threatened to withhold funding from the Smithsonian following an art exhibition that questioned heroic images of the frontier. It also took until 2018, following many years of resistance, for Monticello to open an exhibit on the life of Sally Hemings, who historiansnow accept was the enslaved mother of six of Thomas Jefferson’s children.