U.S. News

05.26.13

New Project Features Guantánamo’s Long Past

The Guantánamo Public Memory Project aims to remind people of the facility's century-long place in U.S. politics—and why it's so hard to close.

As President Obama gave a speech Thursday about Guantánamo Bay’s future, one group is pushing Americans to remember its past.

The Guantánamo Public Memory Project is a traveling exhibit that explores the location's expansive history, from its establishment in 1898 as a naval base to its role as a detention camp today. Led by Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights, with the work from students at 12 other universities nationwide, the multimedia exhibit's aim is to make visitors confront the occasionally hidden past of the notorious detention center.

“Guantánamo has been a legal laboratory and has been a space for great experimentation where things have gone horribly right and horribly wrong,” said Liz Sevcenko, director of the project. “Something about the project that is unique as a resource is it has focused on the human impact and personal experiences, because we have done over 100 interviews with people who have shaped or have been shaped by Guantánamo.”

Students involved with the project took a semester-long class about the history of Guantánamo Bay and had to complete a part of the exhibit as their final project. They interviewed historians, archivists, past prisoners, guards, and family members to gain insight into what the detention camp was like through each of its different eras. The exhibit began traveling across the country in December and will circulate through nine cities until 2014.

Sevcenko says the project is meant as a teaching tool rather than a political one. The idea for it came about when President Obama issued three executive orders in 2009 to close Guantánamo Bay for good. Sevchenko, along with some colleagues, marked that day as a moment for “the divided U.S. society and the divided world to confront what has happened in [Guantánamo] and to confront not only what has happened since 9/11, but how we got to that point.”

“We wanted to help people understand how Guantánamo was closed before only to be reopened and then closed again and reopened again.”

“We wanted to help people understand how Guantánamo was closed before only to be reopened and then closed again and reopened again. To show Guantánamo as not only the product of one administration, but an enduring part of American policy and politics,” Sevchenko said.

Guantánamo has been the source of political controversy recently as human-rights groups criticize Obama for the way the administration is handling the 103 hunger strikes at the detention center and the fact that the facility has yet to close.

The president addressed the criticism in his speech May 23 at National Defense University, where he called on Congress to lift restrictions that kept him from transferring detainees to other facilities and ultimately shuttering Guantánamo. In acknowledgement of the hunger strikes at the camp, Obama said he would also lift the moratorium on repatriating Yemeni detainees cleared for release. The majority of the prisoners and strikers at the camp are from Yemen.

Sevcenko hopes that by spreading the history of the infamous institution more people will be informed about the current debate over whether to shut Guantánamo down and what the next steps should be.

“We wanted to raise public awareness about the history about Guantánamo and to raise questions about what we face today,” she said. “Because what’s vexing the American public right now is why Guantanamo is so hard to close, and this is a question that seems more obvious if you understand that this space has been a fundamental part of our history, politics, and culture for more than a century.