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UMass students contributed to national exhibit on Guantanamo Bay that arrives in Amherst Sept. 11

The traveling exhibit, which premiered in New York City last December, was assembled by the Guantanamo Memory Project at Columbia University with contributions from students and faculty at 11 universities nationwide. It comes to UMass from Southern California and heads to Arizona next.

“It was a great experience for (the UMass students) because they got to collaborate with 10 other public history programs in the country and each did a panel,” said David Glassberg, professor of history and founder of the public history program in the history department at UMass Amherst.

“Why Guantanamo?” will be displayed at Herter Gallery and features 13 large panels, video testimonies and interactive features. It tells the story of Guantanamo as a Cuban city, a U.S. military base, a humanitarian refugee center and a controversial prison where suspected terrorists have been incarcerated, sometimes tortured, and often held without trial or even legal counsel, according to a summary released by the UMass Officer of News and Media Relations.

“Our goal is to promote an understanding of the history of Guantanamo and provide a space for public debate around one of the most controversial issues in American politics today,” said Max Page, professor of architecture and director of historic preservation initiatives at UMass Amherst. “We think one way the campus should remember 9/11 is to have an open discussion about some of the legacies of that day.”

UMass contribution

John Dickson, a retired foreign officer, and Marwa Amer, who is Muslim, are two of four UMass students who started out working on the panel that describes the history of the base. Dickson said the other two students have left the university. The four came together in a public history class, he said.

According to Dickson, 59, each panel is introduced by a question that targets one aspect of the base, such as its history, foreign policy implications or legal ramifications. He and Amer worked on the geography of the base in answering the question, “Where is Guantanamo?”

He said they tried to get at the core of how the naval base’s geography led to it becoming the principal site of a prison or center for detainees during the Afghan War.

Dickson said that as the four students met, they realized that they each had a link to Guantanamo. He had his connection through his career in foreign service, and Amer is an Egyptian American who lived in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001. The third person had studied prison designs and the fourth was an architect with an interest in lighthouses — there is a large lighthouse on the base.

“All of us came with a previous link to Guantanamo,” he said, “and it helped us frame one of our insights about Guantanamo, that is how it touches people very broadly. It’s this 45-square-mile base but it touches people around the world in a variety of ways. It’s a pinpoint that ripples out globally.”

He said the UMass students’ panel includes a map indicating where the detention center is, illustrating its considerable size, and material that shows the regional impact of its geography, such as its proximity to Miami, Havana and Haiti and its location on shipping routes between the Panama Canal and the eastern seaboard. He said the panel also incudes a map of where all 179 detainees are from, which he said further underscores its global impact.

Another element included, he said, is the question that loomed large, which was whether the area belonged to the United States or Cuba, a fact that affected the treatment of the prisoners. A 2004 Supreme Court decision determined that Guantanamo is United States territory, for all practical purposes, he said.

The experience, Dickson said, “was very illuminating.” He said it not only taught him how to put together an exhibit, but it also gave him an education in the background of Guantanamo and the prison. Further, he said, it made him aware of the people who are running the project, part of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience based in New York City.

Forums planned

The opening of “Why Guantanamo?” on Sept. 11 will include a panel discussion on “The Clash of National Security and Civil Liberties” with Jameel Jaffer, director of the Center for Democracy at the American Civil Liberties Union and a key legal advocate for the detainees, and Akhil Reed Amar, constitutional law professor at Yale University Law School.

The event begins at 4 p.m. in the Bernie Dallas Room in the Goodell Building. An opening reception at Herter Gallery follows at 6 p.m.

Three other forums are planned in conjunction with the exhibition:

■ “Guantanamo: An American History” led by Jonathan Hansen, a lecturer in social studies at Harvard University, Sept. 18, at 4 p.m., in 601 Herter Hall.

■ “Guantanamo From Both Sides of the Fence” led by Jana Lipman, associate professor of history at Tulane University; Jeff Johnston, former public works officer at the U.S. Naval Station, Guantanamo Bay (2004-09), and Alberto Jones, a Cuban employee at the base, Sept. 25, at 4 p.m., in 231 Herter Hall.

■ “Learning from Guantanamo” led by James Yee, former U.S. Army chaplain, U.S. Naval Station, Guantanamo Bay; Buz Eisenberg, attorney representing detainees at Guantanamo and Fredalene Bernhardy Dowd, a former resident of the naval base, Oct. 2, at 4 p.m., in the Cape Cod Lounge in the Student Union.

Also on Oct. 2, area teachers will meet with the speakers to discuss how they might incorporate the history and politics of Guantanamo into their classrooms.

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