GTMO as Museum Artifact

Curator's Note

GTMO as Museum Artefact Michael Welch, Professor, Rutgers University, USA In my recent book, Escape to Prison: Penal Tourism and the Pull of Punishment (2015, University of California Press), I explore ten prison museums on six continents. In doing so, the complex interplay between culture and punishment becomes evident. At the Eastern State Penitentiary (Philadelphia), curators incorporate controversial viewpoints on the historical use of prisons and their contemporary transformations. An entire wing of the penitentiary is devoted to contemporary artworks that throw critical light on imprisonment. In one exhibit, a prison cell is revamped as a (post)modern cage in which a sleeping mat, a bath towel, and shower shoes are surrounded by a chain link fence. Without having to refer to the storyboard, visitors recognize it as a replica of the holding cells at Guantanamo Bay. The installation, titled “GTMO”, is the work of artist William Cromar. Placing a GTMO cell inside an Eastern State Penitentiary cell illustrates “nearly polar opposite means used to find a nearly equivalent end.” Where Eastern State cell is massive, opaque and stone, the small GTMO cell is virtually transparent, reflecting a different attitude toward the prisoner and different expectations of the architecture. With this particular art exhibit, curators encourage visitors to reflect on the larger museum effect and its capacity to compare the past with the present. As the tour (and audio) guide explains, the architecture at Eastern State Penitentiary was originally intended to complement the Quaker philosophy of prisoner reform. The interior of the prison was designed to resemble a cathedral to inspire penitence, or true regret, in the men and women housed there. Indeed, early prison reformers in Philadelphia believed that all persons were basically good. Therefore, a stint in prison would serve to restore those virtues in convicts, affirming the dignity of wrongdoers. By contrast, the war on terror —especially under President Bush – portrays terrorists as inherently evil. While some detainees had been considered for military commissions, others remain unjustly confined even years after being cleared of war crimes. Arguably, those detainees are being scapegoated (or sacrificed in the ancient sense) for the attacks of September 11th. Cromar’s “GTMO” offers a post-modern critique of the anxiety stoked by the war on terror. Welch, Michael (2015) Escape to Prison: Penal Tourism and the Pull of Punishment. Berkeley: University of California Press.


The imagery of the GTMO cell inside of the Eastern State cell is very powerful. It shows our distrust and animosity toward the prisoners, as well as the tension between privacy and fear of evil that has been ever present since the War on Terror began. I think your piece captures those sentiments nicely. The observers can imagine being in each of those cells and enduring the ways in which the outside world would view them. It brings to light the differences in the ideas and intentions behind the creation of each space. On another note, the GTMO cell seems more like a cage in comparison to the Eastern State cell. This corresponds with the attempts at dehumanization that are often present in times of war. For many, it is easier to attack the enemy if its people are seen as less than human or pure evil. I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on that.

I'm intrigued by the prison officials who invite (?) curators to offer a "critical light on imprisonment" through their artwork and installations within the prison complex. Can you say more about the relationships that make that exchange possible? I wonder, too, about the visitors to the museum/exhibit. I appreciate your comment about the two prisons' contradictory approaches to their captives. The staging of the Guantanamo cell inside the penitentiary also reminded me of the institutional, procedural, and personnel linkages between the GTMO and the domestic prison system.

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