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From Guantánamo to Stillwater

January 5, 2017

When Professors Kevin Murphy and Jean O’Brien of the University of Minnesota’s history department first became involved in the Guantánamo Public Memory Project, they had no idea of the profound impact it would have on their classes, their students, and the University of Minnesota itself.

Four years later, the project has transformed their approach to teaching, allowed students to display their work on a national scale, and made the University of Minnesota into a central hub for incarceration research and solutions in the United States.

An evolving project

The Guantánamo Public Memory Project began in 2012-13 as a research initiative through the The New School, a private research university in New York City. Along with 13 other universities, UMN students conducted research regarding Guantánamo Bay and its history, dating back to its first settlement. They produced exhibition panels and interpretive digital projects that are now part of a traveling exhibit.

The Guantánamo exhibition has already reached over 100,000 people on its national tour, which included a stop at the Minnesota History Center.

In the four years since it began, the Guantánamo Public Memory Project has transformed into the Humanities Action Lab (HAL), whose mission involves generating innovative curricula and public engagement with urgent social issues in humanities. The newest HAL project is called “States of Incarceration,” in which students and faculty at 20 universities across the country research and historicize the phenomenon of mass incarceration in the United States.

A local focus

Following their early success with the Guantánamo project, O’Brien and Murphy decided to continue partnering with HAL, and are now leading a third class on public history and incarceration.

In fall 2016, they focused on identifying and examining the factors that have led to disproportionately high rates of incarceration of Native Americans in Minnesota. From exploring the long-term roots of this problem within the context of continuing settler colonialism and dispossession, to seeing the effects that aggressive policing and disproportionate incarceration have had on families and communities, students have led the way in this groundbreaking research.

“Really, the students are teaching us,” says Murphy. “They lead the way in these projects, and continue to surprise both Jean and me. We could not be more proud of the work they have done.”

The students’ research, along with the research from the 19 other universities, is featured in an ongoing “States of Incarceration” traveling exhibition that will make a stop in Minnesota in 2018.

Professors O’Brien and Murphy plan to continue their project for the foreseeable future and cycle topics every three years. As Murphy states, “There are plenty of vital issues that innovative public history projects like this can bring to wide attention, and we hope that with our guidance, our students will continue to excel in offering solutions to important problems that will impact communities near and far for years to come.”

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.