Shotgun Reviews

The Guantanamo Bay Museum of Art and History at Worth Ryder Art Gallery

Shotgun Reviews are an open forum where we invite the international art community to contribute timely, short-format responses to an exhibition or event. If you are interested in submitting a Shotgun Review, please click this link for more information. In this Shotgun Review, M. Rebekah Otto reviews The Guantanamo Bay Museum of Art and History at the Worth Ryder Art Gallery.

Adam Harms. Performing the Torture Playlist, 2012; found digital video; 59-minute loop. Courtesy of the Artist.

Adam Harms. Performing the Torture Playlist, 2012; found digital video; 59-minute loop. Courtesy of the Artist.

The Guantanamo Bay Museum of Art and History posits that the eponymous detention facility on the U.S. military base in Cuba closed permanently in 2012, and a museum subsequently opened on its premises. The fictive museum, conceived and created by Ian Alan Paul, intends to “remember the human rights abuses that occurred while the prison was in operation.” [1] The Guantanamo Bay Museum of Art and History Satellite Exhibition curated by Paul and recently on view at the Worth Ryder Art Gallery of the University of California, Berkeley included works that evoked the awe, indignity, and sorrow of the Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility (Gitmo). For example, in Adam Harms’s Performing the Torture Playlist (2012), amateur performers sing karaoke-style renditions of the American pop songs used to torture Guantanamo prisoners.[2] While such constituent works of the Guantanamo Bay Museum of Art and History are compelling, they are not predicated on nor directly address the supposed closure. Instead, they feel more relevant to a prison that’s still active than to its remembrance.

Museums that memorialize tragedy are rhetorical spaces that rely on certain tropes to elicit our emotions and reinforce the horrible circumstances of a particular catastrophe, event, or time period. Exhibition designers transmute mundane objects into relics, weighting them with history. [3] The Guantanamo Bay Museum, which exists as a website and as satellite exhibitions, lacks the emotional artifacts that substantiate tragedies in our national imagination. Nor does it engage in the hagiography that we anticipate from such sites: framed quotes from heroic leaders, statues and portraits of victims, or even basic biographic details. Where are the detainees themselves in this museum? (We see only shadows of prisoners in Jenny Odell’s All the People in Centinela Federal Prison [2012].) While the most direct impact of the prison’s closure would be on the 164 detainees still held there, the museum oddly does not address what may happen to them or what has happened to the detainees who have previously been freed.

There are many efforts by activists, journalists, and scholars to confront the savagery of Gitmo and the global war on terror in general. The Guantanamo Docket chronicles and humanizes the 779 prisoners. Vice has published Molly Crabapple’s intimate sketches of the detainees and their guards from her trips to Gitmo. On April 21, 2013, the London Guardian published a moving op-ed by current detainee Shaker Aamer, detailing his eleven years in detention and the legal Gordian Knot that he’s tied in. These attempts are unafraid to confront the materiality of the prison and its terrible impact. They are our testaments to an active institution that the museum cannot commemorate in its aspirational state.

The Guantanamo Bay Museum of Art and History Satellite Exhibition was on view at the Worth Ryder Art Gallery of the University of California, Berkeley from September 25 until October 29, 2013.  The Guantanamo Bay Museum of Art and History is an ongoing project.

M. Rebekah Otto lives in Oakland, California. She grew up in Chicago. Her work has been published in The Believer, The Millions, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She is currently the Content Manager at

[1] Other projects employ a similar approach, notably Eames Demetrios’ Kcymaerxthaere, which claims to be a parallel universe with an alternate version of modern history that touches our world at various points, marked by bronze plaques and other historical signifiers.

[2] Another evocative piece also on view, Carling McManus and Jen Susman’s Arrows to Mecca (2013) replicated the arrows painted throughout the grounds of the prison to orient detainees toward Mecca for daily prayers. In the series, small, benign arrows made of water adorn a parking lot, an office floor, the aisle of an anonymous store, a suburban street, and other ubiquitous sites of the American landscape.

[3] Examples of these objects in iconic memorial museums include a charred pocketbook at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York City, a “Coloreds only” water fountain at the International Civil Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro, N.C., and the shoes of the deceased at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.