Over the last two years, a traveling exhibit developed by students and faculty from 15 universities, including Rutgers, has provided a probing, provocative examination of the U.S. presence in Guantánamo Bay, taking a hard look at the history of the naval station and detention center.
The exhibit tells the Guantánamo story, from its acquisition by the U.S following the Spanish-American War to the detentions of accused enemy combatants following 9/11 at the U.S. naval base. The online material adds more details, exploring little-known stories and also includes interviews with refugees, detainees as well as military personnel.
On June 23 – at the invitation of Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn. – the exhibit was displayed at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, D.C. And at an evening reception, four congressmen praised the students’ work. The congressman were: Mark Takano (D-CA), Jim Moran (D-VA), John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI), and Jerrold Nadler (D-NY).
Jasmeet Bawa, a School of Arts and Sciences (SAS) senior and Hajar Hasani, a 2014 SAS graduate, joined students from around the country for the event. They were accompanied by Andy Urban, an SAS professor of American studies and history, who taught the Curating Guantánamo course in which students developed the written and visual content for two of the exhibit’s 13 panels, and also produced online material.
"It is really exciting to see the exhibit on Capitol Hill, and to witness how far it has traveled, and the different ways that our work and the work of other students has reached people,” Bawa said.
“The Congressmen who spoke had such strong stances on the need to close Gunantanamo, and it helped validate the work we have been doing," Hasani said.
Bawa and Hasani briefed Ellison's staff and members of the public about their work leading guided tours of the exhibit, and the spoken-word event they organized at Rutgers.
The Guantánamo Public Memory Project, launched by the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, is coordinated through Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. The exhibit is a collaborative project between universities and includes interviews, images, documentary material, video footage and artwork never before shared with the public.
"Guantánamo is not this aberrant product of one presidential administration,” said Liz Sevcenko, director of the memory project. "It has been an integral part of American politics and policy for more than a century, and will likely be a part of how we operate for decades to come.”
In 2013, when the exhibit came to Rutgers, Bawa and Hasani gave tours and led public discussions. The two immersed themselves in the study of Guantánamo and then reached out to professors whose course content had potential connections to the exhibit.
“Most people associate Guantánamo with just the post-9/11 era, if they associate it with anything at all,” said Bawa, who made the exhibit the focus of a research project through the Aresty Research Center. “It’s actually pretty interesting and disappointing at the same time how much we don’t know about it.”
Urban, who coordinated the exhibit at Rutgers, said the project is a unique piece of public history that educates students and the larger community and draws them into the national conversation on an issue that’s constantly resurfacing.
“It demonstrates what we can do in our classrooms and how it can actually inform civic dialogue,” said Urban.
Urban’s Curating Guantánamo course was offered through the program in Cultural Heritage and Preservation Studies, or CHAPS.